Supreme Court to decide limits on lawyers' using federal money

Legal arguments for clients seeking welfare at issue


WASHINGTON -- The highly charged question of what strings the government can attach to the use of federal money reached the Supreme Court again yesterday, this time in the context of legal services for the poor.

The court agreed to decide whether Congress violated the First Amendment when it restricted the kinds of arguments that lawyers supported by the Legal Services Corp. can make on behalf of clients seeking welfare benefits. Under the restriction, the lawyers can help clients who are seeking to receive or restore specific welfare benefits but may not become involved in "an effort to amend or otherwise challenge existing law."

The federal appeals court in New York ruled last year that because the provision, first imposed on the agency in 1996, "clearly seeks to discourage challenges to the status quo," it amounted to "viewpoint discrimination" prohibited by the First Amendment.

The Clinton administration appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that the restriction posed no constitutional problem because Congress "has simply chosen to pay for certain services but not others."

The administration said it was clear from Supreme Court precedents that the government could incorporate such a preference for the use of its money into federal regulations. The administration cited a 1991 decision which upheld a prohibition on counseling about abortion in family planning clinics that received federal money.

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