Committee of Bar Examiners Holds Emergency Teleconference Meeting to Address Legal Education and Exam Administration in Light of the COVID-19 Pandemic

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By Halie Turigliatti

On March 30, 2020, the State Bar of California’s Committee of Bar Examiners (CBE) held an emergency and special meeting over teleconference. The meeting began by voting to start an official emergency meeting, according to the Bagley-Keene Open Meeting Act.

During the emergency meeting, the Committee considered a petition from registered/unaccredited People’s College of Law (PCOL) for an emergency waiver to teach classes online in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Staff recommended that the Committee grant the waiver for PCOL, but also all registered unaccredited and California Accredited Law Schools (CALS). After discussion and comment from several unaccredited and CALS deans, the Committee voted to accept staff’s recommendation, noting that the American Bar Association (ABA) had already granted such waivers to the ABA-accredited law schools. The Committee voted to permit online learning through August 31, 2020, and additionally to follow the same precedent of the ABA law schools and grant discretion to the law school deans to determine whether or not the school would maintain their usual grading system for the spring semester, or to transition to a pass/fail grading system. The emergency meeting was then adjourned, and the Committee voted to begin the special meeting.

At the special meeting open session, the Committee voted to accept staff’s recommendation, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic to extend the deadline for applicants to complete their moral character exam from 60 to 90 days from the date of initiation to allow applicants more time to complete their fingerprints and to grant the Program Manager for Moral Character Determinations permission to allow submission of additional documents past the 90-day mark if good cause is demonstrated.

On the agenda for the closed session was action regarding preparation and administration of the June 2020 First-Year Law Students’ Examination and July 2020 California Bar Exam. The Chair did permit, however, over 55 people to provide a public comment concerning the fate of the July Bar Exam. The majority of the commenters were law students from across the country, most of whom were advocating for diploma privilege—an option that would permit any law school graduate to be licensed as an attorney without having to take and pass the bar exam. Many of these students referenced the letter signed by hundreds of law students that has been sent to the California State Bar, the Supreme Court of California, and the Governor. Much reference was made during public comment to a white paper, Ohio State Public Law Working Paper No. 537, authored by 11 women academics from across the country, which proffers and analyzes six the possible options for the July Bar Exam in light of the pandemic. These options include postponement, online exams, exams administered to small groups, emergency diploma privilege, and supervised practice.

The Committee Chair also mentioned that CBE members had each received a copy of the March 29, 2020 letter the 21 ABA-accredited California law school deans submitted to the Committee and the California Supreme Court, urging caution as they deliberate whether to offer the exam in July or postpone it as New York has already opted to do. In the letter, the deans also offered their willingness to participate in a working group, or any other formal or informal opportunities to collaborate with members of the CBE, the Court, and leaders of the Bar, to evaluate options for the July bar exam and alternative paths to licensure in 2020, with a goal of making recommendations to the CBE and the Court by the end of April.

Before going into closed session, Interim Director of Admissions, Amy Nunez, advised the Committee and the public that the National Committee of Bar Examiners (NCBE), which administers the Multistate Bar Examination (MBE) multiple-choice portion of the California Bar exam, was also carefully deliberating possible action for the July Exam, and expected to make a decision by May 5, 2020. She indicated CBE would likely decide within the same timeframe. The Chair also discussed the possibility of scheduling another emergency and special meeting in the future as current public health guidelines continue to develop. There was no firm resolution at the end of the open session, and CBE has not yet announced any action that may have been taken during the closed session.

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