Exam controversy 'a mess,' USC ethicist says
COLUMBIA -- A former chief justice and a top legal ethics expert say the state Supreme Court should be more open about why it changed the grades of 20 bar exam applicants to "pass" from "fail."
"I keep waiting for a little more definitive-type information especially from the current chief justice, but I haven't gotten any," A. Lee Chandler, the court's chief justice in the mid-1990s, told The State in an interview Friday.
Chandler stressed he was not prejudging the matter.
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Efforts to reach Chief Justice Jean Toal were unsuccessful Friday.
The State newspaper has confirmed that at least six of the 20 people who had their grades adjusted in apparent violation of the Supreme Court's own rules were clerks to state judges.
Two of the clerks are daughters of prominent state officials who complained about the test results to the Supreme Court.
Chandler, now 84 and an ordained Episcopal deacon, said the S.C. Bar's Board of Governors was right to call Thursday for disclosure.
"I'm not a bit surprised the Bar is asking for more information," Chandler said.
John Freeman, ethics professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law, told The State on Friday that the Supreme Court should consider releasing more information quickly.
"The sooner the full truth comes out, the more this becomes yesterday's news," Freeman said. "Ordinarily, I would respect the right of the Supreme Court to keep its own counsel, but this affects so many people.
"It does raise a question as to the propriety of the court's systems."
Referring to the recent plea by the S.C. Bar's board for more disclosure, Freeman said: "These are leaders in the profession who are on the Board of Governors. They are classy, solid people. What they are saying is, they want the story out."
Freeman believes that "nothing wrongful happened, but anything the court could do to dissipate this and restore full confidence would be to the best. That comes with sunlight."
"This is a mess for everyone," he said. "It's mess for the public, the legal profession and the court."
'Cloud for life'
The students who took July's bar exam will be broken down into two groups, Freeman said: the students who originally passed and the students who had their grades changed. He said those who had their grades changed will "have a cloud for life."
"What is vague to me, and vague to a lot of people, is just exactly how this happened. Was there a misgrading of a question? Was there an improper question? I just don't know," Freeman said.
In March, the Supreme Court said the Board of Law Examiners' internal review system to catch exam errors was "more than sufficient" to detect errors before it published the final list of people who passed the bar exam. The court said at that time there would be no appeals.
However, on Nov. 2, a week after the original list of 428 who passed last July's bar exam was published, the Supreme Court added 20 names.
In a brief statement posted later on its Web site, the high court said it had discovered a "scoring error" but didn't divulge details such as what the error was and who found it.
Moreover, the court apparently didn't consult with George Hearn, chairman of the Board of Law Examiners, which grades the bar exams, about the error.
The grade changes have attracted attention around the state and nation.
The ABA Weekly Journal, a popular legal news Web site, Friday listed the controversy as one of the country's top legal stories.
In Georgetown County, Marty Tennant, an unsuccessful S.C. House candidate in 2002, has started an online petition asking the House to begin impeachment proceedings against Toal for "acts of moral turpitude."
The petition -- impeachjeantoal.com -- had six signatures, including Tennant's, as of Friday afternoon.
Tennant, a self-employed computer repairman, said he plans to keep the Web site up until the Legislature meets in January.
Under the state constitution, a sitting justice can be removed for serious crimes or serious misconduct in office if:
• The House votes to impeach, which requires a two-thirds vote, and
• The Senate, also with a two-thirds majority, votes for removal after a trial.
Tennant singled out Toal instead of the entire court because of her handling of the bar exam controversy, he said, and two prior hit-and-run property damage accidents involving her.
"She thinks she is above the law," Tennant said.
Tennant acknowledged he has had problems with the Supreme Court in the past, noting he had unsuccessfully tried to persuade the court to accept a civil case involving 911 fees listed on phone bills.
Dan Shearouse, the Supreme Court clerk of court, said Toal was attending a Washington, D.C., meeting of state supreme court chief justices. Toal is president of that group.