This year, Congress may abolish restrictions on the ability of activist legal groups, that receive millions of dollars from the federally-funded Legal Services Corporation (LSC), to file ideologically-motivated lawsuits. Congress imposed these restrictions in 1996 in response to legal services lawyers systematically using taxpayer money to pursue a liberal political agenda that had nothing to do with the LSC’s ostensible mission of assisting the poor with their civil legal needs. These restrictions included bans on representing undocumented aliens, abortion-related litigation, prisoner advocacy, class action suits, and challenges to welfare reform.
Even with the restrictions, legal services lawyers still file lawsuits to push their political agenda. This includes litigation to force spending increases for welfare programs. In addition, legal services lawyers file lawsuits against efforts to rein in corruption and abuse in various welfare programs. A prime example of this occurred in 2003 when Legal Services of Northern California (LSNC) filed a lawsuit to stop the State of California from cracking down on welfare fraud by instituting a fingerprinting system. These are the kinds of controversial lawsuits legal services lawyers file under the restrictions. If Congress removes the restrictions, there will most certainly by an avalanche of lawsuits at the federal, state and local level to overturn welfare reforms.
The controversy involving LSNC began when the state legislature ordered the California Department of Social Services to implement a Statewide Fingerprint Imaging System (SFIS) for welfare applicants and recipients as part of an effort to reduce “endemic fraud” in the state’s welfare system. State officials judged an electronic fingerprint system necessary because there were people seeking relief by applying for benefits in more than one county. In addition to fingerprinting applicants, photographs were also taken to ensure the integrity of the fingerprint match results. Many welfare recipients lauded the anti-fraud effort because it helped restore integrity to the welfare system and increased benefits for the truly needy.
However, the taxpayer-funded LSNC, based in Sacramento, filed a lawsuit to halt the program. Among its objections to the fingerprint system, LSNC argued that it violated recipients’ constitutional rights to privacy and religious freedom. It even invoked the specter of Orwell’s 1984 novel in describing how SFIS undermined privacy and personal dignity. In addition, LSNC went so far as to claim that fingerprinting violated religious liberty because it “is a mark of the devil and stains the soul with sin.”
A California trial court ruled in favor for LSNC. However, the Court of Appeal of California for the Third Appellate District overruled the decision. In response to the religious liberty argument, the court noted that the U.S. Supreme Court rejected religious freedom objections to the use of social security numbers to combat welfare fraud. In addition, the California Supreme Court rejected privacy claims about the use of fingerprinting for driver’s licenses because of the need to deter fraud.
LSNC also employed far-fetched arguments against the use of photographs. In the words of the court, LSNC posited “a parade of horribles” that would result if photos were allowed including the possibility of “blood testing, DNA sampling, urine testing.” The court rejected this argument, noting that the legislature directed the Department of Social Services to specifically implement “a statewide fingerprint imaging system” and gave it discretion in how to establish such a system. Furthermore, requiring photographs was not invasive because fingerprint systems usually required photos.
In conclusion, the court rejected LSNC’s claim that fingerprinting stigmatizes welfare applicants since they “are no more stigmatized by fingerprinting than are driver’s licenses applicants, lawyers, accountants, and many others.” Likewise, the court rejected LSNC’s claim that SFIS deters persons from applying for assistance because it took too much time and was invasive. The court observed that fingerprinting was simply part of the normal applications process and took no more than five minutes. (See, Sheyko v. Saenz, 112 Cal. App. 4th 675)