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Posted on Fri, Nov. 16, 2007

S.C. Bar to court: Explain actions

Lawyers’ group distances itself from controversial move


The S.C. Bar’s governing body distanced itself Thursday from the state Supreme Court in a growing controversy over how the high court — in a still unexplained process — changed the grades of 20 of last July’s bar exam test-takers to “pass” from “fail.”

The three-sentence statement by the Bar’s 21-member Board of Governors indicated the high court should do more to explain itself.

The statement also makes clear that the Bar — which represents the state’s 10,000-plus lawyers — doesn’t want to be associated with the Supreme Court’s grade-changing action. The statement was published on the Bar’s Web site.

“The S.C. Bar encourages those charged with responsibility for the bar examination to further explain what happened and take steps to avoid a recurrence of these events,” the statement said.

“Those charged with responsibility for the bar examination” is a clear reference to the Supreme Court, which oversees the admission of lawyers to the Bar.

“The S.C. Bar has no role in any aspect of the bar examination process and has no information other than what has been stated by the Supreme Court,” the statement read.

Two of the test-takers who initially failed were daughters of prominent public officials — a judge and the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee — who had complained to Supreme Court officials about the test results. The two women, Kendall Burch and Catherine Harrison, are clerks to state judges.

Others who had their scores changed also have prestigious jobs as legal clerks.

The Bar’s statement also acknowledged the effects of recent publicity about the grade-changing.

“The S.C. Bar regrets that recent events involving the bar examination have resulted in criticism of the legal profession,” the statement read.

The statement is the first public critique of the Supreme Court by anyone in the state’s legal community since the high court’s grade-changes became known.

While dozens of lawyers, law professors and bar exam applicants have complained to The State newspaper about the high court’s process in changing grades, none wanted his or her name made public. All said they feared retaliation by the high court because they or their law partners might have to appear before the justices some day. Some lawyers also said they fear prospective clients will shun them if they are known for criticizing the court.

The bar exam is a three-day, merit-based test intended to assure the public and the profession that those who pass it have a certain level of competence.

In deciding without detailed explanation to pass 20 test-takers who originally failed, the court’s five justices apparently departed from their own rules meant to uphold that standard.

The court’s rules say appeals contesting bar exam final grades are not permitted. Once the original list of those passing the bar is published, court rules say, that list is final.

The Bar’s statement apparently was posted late in the day without notice to the media. The State newspaper learned of it Thursday evening.

Efforts to reach Chief Justice Jean Toal were unsuccessful at that time.

The Bar’s statement struck a neutral tone and did not accuse the Supreme Court of wrongdoing.

But it was clear that the Bar’s Board of Governors wanted to let the public know everyday lawyers didn’t have anything to do with the grade changes.

By historical measures, it appeared to be an extraordinary public statement by the normally reserved Bar, which has rarely, if ever, challenged the high court. In South Carolina’s cozy legal world, problems often are worked out in private. Only last week, Bar president Lanny Lambert declined to comment on the grade-changing. Efforts to reach him Thursday night were unsuccessful.

Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.