Massachusetts SJC Waives Law School Requirement For Bar Admission

MITCHELL vs. BOARD OF BAR EXAMINERS, SJC-10157.
Decided November 20, 2008.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has carved out an exception to the longstanding rule that only graduates from American Bar Association (“ABA”) accredited law schools may sit for the bar exam to gain admission to the bar. The Court used its equitable powers to waive a particular requirement of a court rule concerning admission to the bar, and more specifically the law school accreditation requirement set out in S.J.C. Rule 3:01, § 3.3, that an applicant have graduated from a law school accredited by the ABA.

The applicant had argued that by requiring graduation from an ABA-approved law school in order to sit for the Massachusetts bar examination, S.J.C. Rule 3:01 violated the equal protection guarantees of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights. The Court did not reach the constitutional arguments, but decided the case on other grounds.

The Court said the waiver was justified for two reasons. The first was the applicant’s educational accomplishments in the field of law. The second was the Court’s recognition that the ABA, through its Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, had announced that it was undertaking a comprehensive review of its approval standards, including consideration of schools and programs using online distance learning.

The applicant had graduated from high school in 1969, and had been a resident of Massachusetts since 1981. In April of 2000, he began study at Concord Law School, an entirely online law school owned by Kaplan, Inc. Concord was authorized by the State of California to grant a degree of bachelor of science in law, and a degree of juris doctor. In July of 2002, Mitchell received his undergraduate degree, a bachelor of science in law, from Concord, and in July, 2004, he received his juris doctor degree from the same institution.

In connection with the law degree, the applicant graduated with “highest honors,” and was the class valedictorian. Following his graduation, he sat for and passed the California bar examination, and was admitted to the bar of California in November, 2004. Subsequently, he was admitted to practice before the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, and before the United States District Court for the Central District of California. The Court also noted that he had appeared in the case pro se, had filed briefs and given oral argument in competent fashion.

In sum, the Court was persuaded that in this applicant’s case, the underlying purpose of the ABA approval requirement had been met, which was to insure an appropriate level of legal education.
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