IN RE PRIMUS, 436 U. S. 412 (1978)

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U.S. Supreme Court

In re Primus, 436 U.S. 412 (1978)

In re Primus

No. 77-56

Argued January 16, 1978

Decided May 30, 1978

436 U.S. 412


Appellant, a practicing lawyer in South Carolina who was also a cooperating lawyer with a branch of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), after advising a gathering of women of their legal rights resulting from their having been sterilized as a condition of receiving public medical assistance, informed one of the women in a subsequent letter that free legal assistance was available from the ACLU. Thereafter, the disciplinary Board of the South Carolina Supreme Court charged and determined that appellant, by sending such letter, had engaged in soliciting a client in violation of certain Disciplinary Rules of the State Supreme Court, and issued a private reprimand. The court adopted the Board's findings and increased the sanction to a public reprimand.

Held: South Carolina's application of its Disciplinary Rules to appellant's solicitation by letter on the ACLU's behalf violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments. NAACP v. Button, 371 U. S. 415, followed; Ohralik v. Ohio Bar Assn., post, p. 436 U. S. 447, distinguished. Pp. 436 U. S. 421-439.

(a) Solicitation of prospective litigants by nonprofit organizations that engage in litigation as "a form of political expression" and "political association" constitutes expressive and associational conduct entitled to First Amendment protection, as to which government may regulate only "with narrow specificity," Button, supra at 371 U. S. 429, 371 U. S. 431, 371 U. S. 433. Pp. 436 U. S. 422-425.

(b) Subsequent decisions have interpreted Button as establishing the principle that "collective activity undertaken to obtain meaningful access to the courts is a fundamental right within the protection of the First Amendment," United Transportation Union v. Michigan Bar, 401 U. S. 576, 401 U. S. 585, and have required that "broad rules framed to protect the public and to preserve respect for the administration of justice" must not work a significant impairment of "the value of associational freedoms," Mine Workers v. Illinois Bar Assn., 389 U. S. 217, 389 U. S. 222. P. 436 U. S. 426.

(c) Appellant's activity in this case comes within the generous zone of protection reserved for associational freedoms because she engaged in solicitation by mail on behalf of a bona fide, nonprofit organization that pursues litigation as a vehicle for effective political expression and association, as well as a means of communicating useful information to the public. There is nothing in the record to suggest that the ACLU

Page 436 U. S. 413

or its South Carolina affiliate is an organization dedicated exclusively to providing legal services, or a group of attorneys that exists for the purpose of financial gain through the recovery of counsel fees, or a mere sham to evade a valid state rule against solicitation for pecuniary gain. Pp. 436 U. S. 426-432.

(d) The Disciplinary Rules in question, which sweep broadly, rather than regulating with the degree of precision required in the context of political expression and association, have a distinct potential for dampening the kind of "cooperative activity that would make advocacy of litigation meaningful," Button, supra at 371 U. S. 438, as well as for permitting discretionary enforcement against unpopular causes. P. 436 U. S. 433.

(e) Although a showing of potential danger may suffice in the context of in-person solicitation for pecuniary gain under the decision today in Ohralik, appellant may not be disciplined unless her activity in fact involved the type of misconduct at which South Carolina's broad prohibition is said to be directed. P. 436 U. S. 434.

(f) The record does not support appellee's contention that undue influence, overreaching, misrepresentation, invasion of privacy, conflict of interest, or lay interference actually occurred in this case. And the State's interests in preventing the "stirring up" of frivolous or vexatious litigation and minimizing commercialization of the legal profession offer no further justification for the discipline administered to appellant. Pp. 436 U. S. 434-437.

(g) Nothing in this decision should be read to foreclose carefully tailored regulation that does not abridge unnecessarily the associational freedom of nonprofit organizations, or their members, having characteristics like those of the ACLU. Pp. 436 U. S. 438-439.

268 S.C. 259, 233 S.E.2d 301, reversed.

POWELL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J.,and STEWART, WHITE, BLACKMUN, and STEVENS, JJ., joined, and in all but the first paragraph of Part VI of which MARSHALL, J., joined. BLACKMUN, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 436 U. S. 439. MARSHALL, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, post, p. 436 U. S. 468. REHNQUIST, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 436 U. S. 440. BRENNAN, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

Page 436 U. S. 414

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