Outcry Over Fla.'s In-Person Bar Exam Intensifies

By Aebra Coe
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Law360 (June 29, 2020, 5:53 PM EDT) -- A petition to halt Florida's in-person July bar examination due to COVID-19 has gained more than 1,300 signatures and the support of some law school deans and legislators, but for now the state's bar exam authority is not changing its plans.

As the state grapples with a dramatic spike in COVID-19 cases, an increasing number of people are asking the Florida Board of Bar Examiners not to hold the July bar exam in person in Tampa and Orlando. If the exam goes ahead as planned, about 2,000 test takers would travel from around the state and nation to the two convention center test sites on July 28.

A recent report by CNBC found that Tampa and Orlando have the fastest growing numbers of COVID-19 cases in the U.S.

A petition on Change.org organized by prospective Florida bar exam test takers had garnered 1,331 signatures as of Monday afternoon. The petition calls for the board of bar examiners to consider "all other options" as alternatives to holding the exam in person on July 28.

Other states have chosen to either delay their July bar exams until later in the year, provide a virtual bar exam in July or offer "diploma privilege" to law school graduates, which would allow them to practice law without taking the exam.

"Going through with an in-person exam not only risks the health of thousands of test takers, the zone of affected people is actually tens of thousands when you consider the families and household members that will be exposed when everyone returns home after the exam," one of the petitioners, Michael Rutledge, a 2020 graduate of the University of Miami School of Law, told Law360 on Monday.

Miami Law School graduate Johnny Carver said he is recovering from an invasive nerve-related surgery June 22 as he studies for the exam. He also said he has autoimmune disorders, including ulcerative colitis.

"I simply want to recover from my surgery, not contract COVID-19," Carver said. "For those of us, some of which much worse than I, who have severe autoimmune disorders, putting us in a room together to take this test could have dire consequences. Our bodies cannot physically afford to contract COVID-19, as our immune systems are not built to attack it properly."

In addition to concerns around contracting and spreading COVID-19 to their families and communities, prospective test takers reached out to Law360 on Monday and expressed their fears that if they don't take the exam in July due to health concerns, they will have to wait until February, delaying beginning their careers, supporting themselves and loved ones, and paying off student loans.

In April, the deans of Florida's 12 accredited law schools asked the Board of Bar Examiners to consider some alternatives.

Those recommendations included allowing students to seek admission to the bar after completing a period of supervised practice, providing additional test dates such as one in September, or administering the test at law schools across the state to reduce the number of people at a given test site and reduce travel.

But in May, the board said it would move ahead with the July exam in-person without other options in 2020.

The bar examiners' executive director, Michele Gavagni, told Law360 on Monday that despite the pushback the exam is going ahead as planned.

She said the board worked with health and medical experts to come up with the plan for the exam and to update it as the situation in the state continues to change.

"Part of the reasoning for trying to move ahead is trying to provide the opportunity for people to take this exam this summer and receive their results so that they can be admitted to the Florida Bar if they pass the exam," she said.

She added that the board meets weekly and may adjust the plan "as the situation changes" and may implement "other options."

Additionally, when asked about test takers like Carver who have compromised immune systems, Gavagni said there is no remote option for them to take the exam, but she said those who have medical issues can fill out a form on the Board of Bar Examiners' website and will be provided a separate room at the test site, if there are enough individual rooms to make that possible.

The board's website says it has been working with the Florida Department of Health to develop protocols for the exam, which so far include temperature taking, social distancing with one applicant at a table and tables six feet apart, requiring masks be worn during the two-day exam, and that out-of-state applicants "may" have to quarantine for a time before the exam.

A number of those who have opposed the board's plans include lawmakers.

U.S. Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Donna Shalala, both D-Fla., state Sen. Annette Taddeo, D-Miami, and state Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, among others, have spoken out supporting the petitioners' requests for adjustments.

"Law school grads are already under massive pressure. Why is Florida making them worry about their own health and being a risk to loved ones? Other state bars opted for safer solutions. Fix this Florida," Wasserman Schultz said Friday on Twitter.

"We're seeing record-level new cases of #COVID19. Florida's law students are rightfully worried about putting their health and the health of their loved ones at risk. Other state bars have chosen safer alternatives — FL should do the same," Shalala said the same day.

One prospective bar exam taker tweeted Friday that the hotel he was supposed to stay at while taking the exam has closed due to the pandemic.

"Can't make it up: The hotel I was supposed to stay in while sitting for the Florida Bar Exam has closed due to the pandemic, but the 1000+ person exam, which will be held in a convention center currently being used as a COVID-19 testing site, is still on," said Issac Webb, a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley School of Law.

--Editing by Bruce Goldman.

Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified the approximate number of July Florida Bar exam takers.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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