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Court denies petition for pandemic admissions without taking bar exam

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'This Court . . . still believes that law school graduation alone does not sufficiently demonstrate the knowledge, ability, and preparedness necessary to admit a law graduate to the practice of law in Florida'

Supreme Court sealProposed emergency rule amendments to allow Bar applicants to be admitted without taking the bar exam, subject to six months of supervised practice, have been denied by the Supreme Court.

The court on September 3 acted on a petition filed by 50 Bar members to amend both Bar rules and the court’s Bar admission rules to allow admitting to practice those who had applied to take the July 28-29 bar exam, were graduates of ABA-accredited law schools, and passed the Florida Board of Bar Examiners character and fitness review. The admission would be “subject to supervision for six months by a Florida attorney who has been a member of The Florida Bar in good standing for five years.”

“This Court has determined and still believes that law school graduation alone does not sufficiently demonstrate the knowledge, ability, and preparedness necessary to admit a law graduate to the practice of law in Florida,” the court said in the opinion. “Therefore, it has long been the Court’s policy to require Bar applicants to demonstrate that they meet these essential requirements by taking and obtaining a passing score on the Florida Bar Examination before admitting them to The Florida Bar….

“This Court also does not believe that the completion of six months of supervised practice can sufficiently substitute for the passage of a comprehensive Bar examination that would allow the Court to fulfill its constitutional duty to evaluate a Bar applicant’s knowledge and skill before admitting the applicant to the unrestricted practice of law.”

The court said lawyers play a key role in the justice system, and that justices have regularly seen “the extreme harm done to individual members of the public by lawyers who in practice fall short” in their knowledge of the law.

The opinion noted the court on August 24 created the Temporary Supervised Practice Program, which allows qualified bar exam registrants to practice under the supervision of a licensed attorney. The program is effective through the release of results for the February 2021 bar exam.

“[T]he Court joins Florida Bar President Dori Foster-Morales in calling on all Florida lawyers who are able to employ and supervise qualified applicants participating in the program to do so,” the opinion said.

In a separate concurring opinion to the unanimous per curiam ruling, Justice Alan Lawson addressed the petitioners’ reference to “[t]he delays along with the haphazard method in which the Florida Board of Bar Examiners has attempted to administer The Florida Bar exam in the summer of 2020” and the stress and financial hardships on those unable to take the exam.

He defended the volunteer members of the FBBE and said it had at all times been working under the court’s direction to attempt to hold the exam, first in person on July 28 and 29 in Tampa and Orlando and later online on August 19. The in-person event had to be canceled because of COVID-19 concerns.

The August 19 online test was postponed because of software problems with a private company and “is bitterly frustrating for the board, the Court and for applicants,” Lawson wrote. “Those frustrations, however, do not justify opening Florida’s legal profession to most Bar applicants registered for the July exam without a reliable assessment of their preparedness to practice law.”

He apologized for the disruptions to applicants caused by the delays and said the court is working to alleviate the hardships.

Chief Justice Charles Canady, Lawson, and Justices Ricky Polston, Carlos Muñiz, and John Couriel concurred in the opinion. Justice Jorge Labarga was recused.

Comments supporting the petition were filed with the court by the Hispanic National Bar Association, the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the Miami chapter of FACDL, and the Public Defender officers in the 15th, 12th, and Sixth circuits.

The opinion came only days after a separate group of Florida attorneys petitioned the court for similar rule changes, but limited only to bar exam applicants who are entering judge advocate service in various military branches. That petition said those applicants are facing delays in military training because they first are required to have a valid state bar license.

(Both petitions were filed under Bar rules allowing rule amendments to be filed by 50 Bar members.)

The September 3 opinion came in In re: Petition to Amend the Rules of the Supreme Court Relating to Admissions to the Bar and the Rules Regulating The Florida Bar, Case No. SC20-1236.

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