NAACP sues South Carolina officials in new test of legal practice limits

People gather on the steps of the South Carolina statehouse before a ceremony to remove the Confederate battle flag from the South Carolina statehouse grounds in Columbia, South Carolina
South Carolina statehouse. REUTERS/Jason Miczek
  • South Carolina NAACP seeks to block state from enforcing unauthorized law practice rules against it
  • A federal appeals court in New York is weighing a similar case by nonprofit Upsolve

(Reuters) - A South Carolina civil rights organization is challenging rules that it says would block it from training volunteers who are not lawyers to give limited legal advice to tenants facing eviction in the state.

The South Carolina State Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) sued the state's attorney general in federal court in Charleston on Tuesday, arguing that applying South Carolina's unauthorized practice of law rules to its planned program would violate speech and association rights protected by the First Amendment.

The group is asking the court to bar the state from enforcing the rules against its efforts to give "free, accurate and limited legal advice" to help low-income South Carolinians, the lawsuit said.

The program would train and certify "advocates" to offer limited advice that has been vetted by housing lawyers, it said. The volunteers would help advise tenants on whether and how they should request a hearing on an eviction action and identify possible defenses.

A spokesperson for South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson's office said Thursday they cannot comment on pending litigation.

Tenants in South Carolina, which the group said has one of the highest eviction rates in the country, often do not have legal representation because they cannot afford a lawyer, the lawsuit said. There are not enough pro bono lawyers to meet demand, it said.

The group said South Carolina "regularly enforces" its unauthorized practice of law prohibition, which makes it a felony to practice law without being a member of the state bar. The group cannot provide the advice it seeks to give "without risking prosecution and severe criminal sanctions," it said.

The lawsuit partly mirrors a pending case in New York, in which nonprofit Upsolve won a preliminary injunction last year on First Amendment grounds. A judge barred the New York attorney general from enforcing state unauthorized law practice rules against its own free legal advice program related to debt-collection lawsuits.

The New York attorney general has appealed the ruling and the case is at the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The plaintiffs in the South Carolina case are represented by The Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown University Law Center, the national NAACP and the South Carolina-based Wyche Law Firm.

The case is South Carolina State Conference of the NAACP et al v. Wilson, U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina, No. 2:23-cv-01121-DCN.

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Sara Merken reports on privacy and data security, as well as the business of law, including legal innovation and key players in the legal services industry. Reach her at