In Victory for Poor, High Court Says Congress Can't Restrict Challenges to Welfare Laws

February 28, 2001 12:00 am

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NEW YORK–The American Civil Liberties Union applauded today’s decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that said that legal services lawyers may represent their indigent clients in challenging the constitutionality of existing welfare laws in appropriate cases.

The provision, struck down today by a vote of 5 to 4, was first enacted by Congress in 1996 as part of a larger package of restrictions imposed on legal services lawyers at the same time that Congress significantly slashed the budget of the Legal Service Corporation.

“From the beginning, it was apparent that the congressional attack on the legal services program was ideological and punitive,” said Steven R. Shapiro, the ACLU’s national Legal Director. “What today’s decision makes equally clear,” he added, “is that Congress violated the First Amendment when it attempted to immunize its new welfare laws from constitutional challenge.”

Congress may have broad powers over funding, the Court said in the majority opinion written by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, but those powers do not include the right to override the Constitution. By attempting to do so in this case, the Court explained, Congress effectively relegated welfare recipients to second-class status in America’s courts. It also improperly undermined the role of the judiciary in determining whether Congress has overstepped its constitutional bounds.

“Today’s decision is an important victory,” Shapiro said, “and we hope it will encourage a reexamination of the other restrictions that continue to impede the ability of Legal Services lawyers to represent their clients effectively.”

The ACLU filed a friend of the court brief in today’s case, Legal Services Corporation v. Carmen Velazquez & United States of America v. Carmen Velazquez, Nos. 99-603 & 99-960 and also filed its own separate challenge to the congressional restrictions.

The ACLU’s legal brief in the Velazquez case is online at

An ACLU analysis of the issues in the case is online at

Today’s Supreme Court decision can be found at

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