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Court Upholds Law That Deters Hiring Attorneys to Press Some VA Claims Cases

Times Staff Writer

The Supreme Court on Friday upheld a 123-year-old law that effectively prevents veterans or their survivors from hiring lawyers to represent them in service-connected death and disability claims.

By a vote of 6 to 3, the court affirmed the constitutionality of an 1862 law that puts a $10 limit on lawyer fees in benefit-claims proceedings. The law, which now covers hundreds of thousands of claims filed annually, had been struck down last year by a federal judge in San Francisco.

Keeping System Simple

The justices said the law was a valid way of ensuring that successful claimants would not have to divide their benefit award with an attorney--and of keeping the claims system simple, informal and non-adversarial.

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“The regular introduction of lawyers into the proceedings would be quite unlikely to further this goal,” Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote in the majority opinion.

In a bristling dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens, joined by Justices William J. Brennan Jr. and Thurgood Marshall, accused the majority of ignoring the basic right to hire a lawyer.

“The court does not appreciate the value of individual liberty,” Stevens wrote. “Whether it be a criminal trial . . . or a pension claim asserted by the widow of a soldier who was killed on the battlefield, the citizen’s right to consult an independent lawyer and retain that lawyer to speak on his or her behalf is an aspect of liberty that is priceless.”

About 800,000 benefits claims are filed in regional Veterans Administration offices each year. About half are allowed--and, of those denied, about 30,000 are appealed in administrative proceedings, rather than the courts. The vast majority of claimants are represented by trained volunteers from veterans’ service groups. Only 2% are represented by lawyers, who may work for free or the minimal fee. Attorneys who accept more than $10 are subject to fines of up to $500 and/or imprisonment at hard labor for two years.

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Exorbitant Fees

The fee limit was imposed by Congress out of concern that unscrupulous attorneys were charging exorbitant fees for relatively simple claims from the Civil War. Over the years, Congress has rejected proposals to remove the limit.

Organizations representing atom bomb test survivors and other veterans challenged the limit in 1983 in a federal court suit in San Francisco. Legal counsel is often vital, particularly in complex cases involving the herbicide Agent Orange or atomic radiation claims, they said.

U.S. District Judge Marilyn Hall Patel found the law to be “fundamentally unfair,” violating the claimants’ rights of free association. But the Veterans Administration appealed to the Supreme Court, saying lawyers were not necessary to ensure fair procedures.

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In their decision (Walters vs. National Assn. of Radiation Survivors, 84-571), the justices concluded that invalidating the fee limit would defeat Congress’ intent to keep the system simple.

The court said there was little evidence to show that legal counsel would change the outcome in most disputed claims. Statistical data showed that claimants represented by veterans’ service groups won 16% of their appeals; in the few cases in which claimants were represented by lawyers, they won slightly more than 18% of the time.

‘Bootleg’ Records Case

In another decision (Dowling vs. United States, 84-589), the court held, 6 to 3, that sellers of “bootleg” records and audio tapes may not be prosecuted for interstate transportation of stolen goods, a federal felony. The ruling deprived prosecutors of a potent weapon to combat a problem that has increasingly plagued the recording industry. But it did not affect the ability to charge such persons with copyright infringement, mail fraud or with theft under state law.

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The case involved Paul Edmond Dowling of Towson, Md., who over a 10-year period had collected more than 2,000 recordings by singer Elvis Presley. Dowling was accused of an extensive, nationwide bootleg-record operation in which he sold unauthorized recordings of Presley songs made from movie sound tracks, television shows and concert performances.

He was convicted in federal court in Los Angeles of copyright infringement, mail fraud and interstate shipment of stolen goods. But the justices ruled that the National Stolen Property Act was not intended to cover instances of copyright infringement and was aimed instead at the taking of physical goods from their rightful owners. Dowling’s convictions for copyright infringement and mail fraud were not involved in the decision.


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