DOJ, Louisiana reach settlement to modify legal admission criteria

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This is a graphic in shape of Louisiana with portions of the state flag inside.

Louisiana to Stop Discriminatory Mental Disabilities Inquiries

Candidates seeking admission to practice law in Louisiana will no longer have to provide responses to inquiries into their mental disabilities, under a settlement announced August 15 by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Louisiana Supreme Court.

“Qualified individuals with disabilities, including mental health disabilities, have valuable contributions to make to the legal profession and to their communities,” said Molly Moran, acting assistant attorney general for the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, in a news release. “Their diagnosis should not hinder or prevent them from doing so.

“Though bar licensing entities have the important responsibility of ensuring that all licensed attorneys are fit to practice law, licensing entities must discharge this responsibility in a manner that is consistent with civil rights laws.”

In 2010, the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law filed a complaint with the DOJ on behalf of two prospective attorneys to the Louisiana Bar.

In February 2014, the DOJ responded in a 34-page letter, documenting a variety of perceived ADA violations.

Specifically, the DOJ criticized many of the questions asked during the state’s Character and Fitness hearings, which are required in most states, along with passage of the state Bar examination, prior to admission.

As the DOJ saw it, many of the questions required disclosure of an applicant’s diagnosis, even when there was no evidence that it impacted their ability to practice law. In addition, the DOJ criticized the state’s practice of allowing conditional admissions, and then requiring the applicants to provide periodic psychiatric records, even when their disabilities had little bearing on their conduct.

“It struck us as invasive and extremely burdensome,” Julia Graff, an attorney with the Bazelon Center, told the New Orleans Times-Picayune. “Louisiana was making inquiries and then using that information and was employing stereotypes and assumptions about what that person was like.”

Under the settlement, the state Supreme Court will revise its Character and Fitness screening questions so that applicants will only be asked about their mental disabilities where it “currently affects the applicant’s ability to practice law in a competent, ethical and professional manner or is disclosed to explain conduct that may otherwise warrant denial of admission,” according to the DOJ news release.

In addition, the Court must “refrain from placing onerous disability-based conditions on (applicants’) admission, invading their privacy, or violating their confidentiality.” With these new procedures, the Court must reevaluate pending and prior applicants who disclosed mental disabilities and pay $200,00 to compensate a number of affected bar applicants.

The DOJ has similar pending case involving the admission criteria in Vermont, Connecticut and with the National Council of Bar Examiners.