July 2013 Bar Bulletin
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July 2013 Bar Bulletin

Celebrating 10 Years of Legal Aid with IOLTA

By Caitlin Davis Carlson


When you Google "notable Supreme Court cases 2003," a handful of cases always appears: Grutter v. Bollinger, which upheld consideration of race and ethnicity in law school admissions; Lawrence v. Texas, which held a Texas sodomy law to be unconstitutional; and Virginia v. Black, which upheld states' authority to ban cross burning.

Another Supreme Court decision from 2003 that may not rise to the top of the search engine results, but was of great importance not just in Washington but around the country, was Brown v. Legal Foundation of Washington. This decision upheld the constitutionality of the Interest on Lawyers' Trust Account (IOLTA) program, therefore preserving a critical funding source for indigent legal services.

In January 1997, the confusingly named, DC-based Washington Legal Foundation sued the Legal Foundation of Washington (LFW) on the grounds that the IOLTA program resulted in an unconstitutional taking without the payment of just compensation in violation of the Just Compensation Clause of the Fifth Amendment. LFW prevailed in District Court, but the Washington Legal Foundation appealed the decision. After the case made its way through the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. Oral arguments were heard on December 9, 2002. The decision was issued on March 26, 2003.

In June, more than 100 legal aid supporters gathered to celebrate the 10th anniversary of this momentous decision. Much of the legal team was present and former Washington Chief Justice Gerry Alexander - who together with his fellow justices had been named as defendants because of the Court's role in creating and enforcing the IOLTA program - recalled the Washington Supreme Court's interest in the case's favorable outcome and noted the ruling affected not only Washington, but every state in the country. In the 10 years since the decision, nearly $1 billion in legal aid funding has been generated nationally through IOLTA programs, resulting in hundreds of thousands of low-income people receiving legal help.

With wide support both in our legal community and from around the country, the law firm of Perkins Coie represented LFW pro bono during the entire six years of litigation. The team was led by David Burman and assisted by Nick Gellert, Katie O'Sullivan and Charles Sipos. As Burman said when he received the Charles A. Goldmark Award for Public Service in 2004, "The magic of IOLTA is in the ability to turn pennies into such a force for good, and to leverage that money through the efforts of those dedicated lawyers."

"In preparing for oral argument, I knew that I would not get a chance to engage in any great heights of oratory," Burman continued. "The justices have an amazing ability to sense that a rhetorical flourish is on its way, and to cut it off at the knees with a volley of questions. But in the slim chance that a justice would ask a question that would give me an opening, I spent a bit of time before the argument looking for a quotation that would capture the importance of IOLTA and of access to justice.

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