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Law360 (July 22, 2020, 6:33 PM EDT) -- Louisiana's high court on Wednesday became the fourth in the country to temporarily grant diploma privilege to the state's law school graduates in a testy split ruling that had one dissenting justice asking: "Just what is the emergency?"
Ruling 4-3, the Louisiana Supreme Court decreed that law school graduates in the state who are already registered to take the state bar examination this month or in October would be automatically admitted to the Louisiana State Bar after completing some additional requirements. Courts in Washington, Oregon and Utah decided to waive their states' exam requirements late last month.
"This pandemic, not experienced globally since the 1918 Spanish Flu, has caused absolute disruption not only to the legal profession but to every aspect of society," Chief Justice Bernette J. Johnson, who authored the majority opinion, said in a Wednesday statement.
"We believe that our action today is not only warranted, but necessary during this public health crisis," she added.
Applicants will have to also complete 25 hours of continued legal education and an ordinarily voluntary mentoring program that's administered by the Louisiana State Bar Association by the end of 2021, according to the ruling.
The court had just ruled to cancel the July test last week, after it had already been shortened to a single day. At the time, the court cited new COVID-19 mitigation measures that Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, signed July 11.
The court's decision comes at the urging of the deans of the state's four largest law schools at Tulane University, Loyola University New Orleans, Louisiana State University and Southern University, according to a press release.
Justices William J. Crain, James T. Genovese and Jefferson D. Hughes III dissented, and all three used strong words to express their collective consternation.
"Today we follow three other states, Washington, Oregon and Utah, who prefer to gift a law license rather than test competency," Justice Crain said in his stormy dissent.
Justice Crain said he was concerned that not administering the test would allow incompetent lawyers to sneak into the ranks of the state's legal system and that the ongoing pandemic was not reason enough to risk it. As of noon Wednesday, the Louisiana Department of Health said that 96,583 people in the state have contracted the novel coronavirus so far and 3,498 have died.
"Will we allow that as an excuse against the victims of incompetence?" Justice Crain asked.
Justice Crain further noted that passing the bar exam had not been waived after Hurricane Katrina, which struck during the summer of 2005.
"Not even in the face of flood-induced homelessness, near complete displacement, and death did we eliminate this prerequisite," Justice Crain said.
The Louisiana Supreme Court, however, said in the press release that the court previously waived the bar exam in 1953, citing the Korean War.
"Bar exam testing is sacrosanct," Justice Genovese said in his dissent, and wondered, "Just what is the emergency?"
He echoed Justice Crain's concerns about incompetent litigators and pointed to the approximately 25% of bar exam applicants who fail the test. The state had no shortage of lawyers either, he added.
But recent Tulane University Law School graduate Hailey Barnett disagreed.
"It's not a privilege, I've been through three years of law school and we've done clinics, we've done externships, internships, you name it," she told Law360 on Wednesday.
Along with Tulane classmate Hank Greenberg, Barnett started a group last week called United for Emergency Admission Louisiana. The group submitted an amicus brief Friday that also urged the justices to take up the case and cited a survey they had taken of 194 of the bar's current applicants. On average, according to the report, 535 people take the exam every July.
In their survey, 58.8% of the respondents said they would need to get a job outside of the legal world if they weren't let into the bar, and 8.8% said they would have to leave the legal profession entirely, according to the brief.
88.1% of the group also said that they are facing financial, food and housing insecurity and are struggling emotionally, according to the brief.
UEAL is among the groups around the country pushing for emergency admission or diploma privilege.
The idea began to gain traction this March after a group of 11 legal scholars published a working paper called "The Bar Exam and the COVID-19 Pandemic: The Need for Immediate Action" with the Social Science Research Network that suggested the idea. Wisconsin, the paper noted, has always had a voluntary alternative to its state bar exam.
States have grappled with how to handle the bar exam process in light of the pandemic.
For example, the New York State Board of Law Examiners last week canceled a bar exam scheduled for Sept. 9-10. New York legislators are currently considering at least two bills regarding the exam in light of the pandemic, including one that would similarly allow applicants to join the New York bar.
Barnett and Greenberg told Law360 they are in the midst of applying for starting positions at a number of firms in Louisiana, and Barnett said that when she gets off the phone, she plans on telling a legal recruiter the good news.
"I just felt a really big weight off my shoulders because now I can plan my future," Barnett said.
--Additional reporting by Rachel Stone and Sarah Jarvis. Editing by Abbie Sarfo.
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