State lawmaker wants results of bar exam to be open to appeals

In reaction to Supreme Court's about-face on policy

COLUMBIA -- The state Supreme Court should consider establishing an appeals process for those who flunk the bar exam, Rep. Jim Harrison, R-Richland, said Friday.

A clear appeals process would prevent situations such as the one that has captivated South Carolina's legal community this week.

The high court threw out part of July's bar exam last week and passed an additional 20 people, including Harrison's daughter, Catherine, after questions were raised to bar officials.

Earlier this year, the court had set a rule that said all bar exam scores are final, and applicants are not allowed "to seek re-grading or any other review of the results."

"If their rule basically says, 'Once your score is certified, there's no ability for anybody to look at the situation again,' then that is wrong and they need to change that," Harrison said.

Harrison, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, made his remarks Friday, shortly after the Supreme Court published on its Web site a short statement addressing its recent apparent about-face on its policy.

The court said that on Oct. 31, the clerk of the Supreme Court learned of a "scoring error" reported by the examiner of the section of the test dealing with wills, trusts and estates.

The full court was advised of the situation Nov. 1 and decided to throw out results of that section, the court said Friday.

That resulted in passing 20 additional people, the court said. In all, 448 have now passed.

The court did not elaborate Friday on its reasoning. The nature of the "scoring error" remained unclear, as did who brought the matter to the court's attention.

In a telephone interview, Chief Justice Jean Toal declined to discuss the matter.

"The Web site says all I'm going to say on the subject."

Names published

Also Friday, the court, for the first time, published the names of the 20 applicants whose grades had been changed including Harrison.

Another of the 20 who initially flunked was Kendall Burch, daughter of Judge Paul Burch. Both Paul Burch and Jim Harrison acknowledge contacting bar officials about test results but say they did not lobby for their children and did nothing improper.

Asked about Jim Harrison's suggestion that the Supreme Court consider establishing an appeals process, Toal declined to comment.

Most states do not allow appeals of bar exam scores, the court has said.

The three-day bar exam, the culmination of three years of law school and thousands of dollars in tuition, is a rite of passage in becoming a lawyer. Passing the bar exam is required to practice law. Those who fail may retake it six months later. It takes months of study to prepare for the exam.

A hot topic

Meanwhile, across the state, the Supreme Court's grade changes had lawyers and law professors talking. Questions and comments flooded into news outlets and Web sites.

Those who raised questions didn't want their names used for fear of making Toal and other justices angry.

"This makes the public at large wonder how many lawyers pass the bar through the back door," one law professor said. "There's no pretty explanation for something like this."

Another lawyer said, "No lawyer in this state can come out and talk about this. Everyone is afraid of offending the court because they might appear before it."

One person said he flunked the recent bar exam and did not get the opportunity to appeal. He provided great detail about the test and his situation.

"I feel that I have not been treated fairly by the Bar Admissions Office's failure to allow the essay that I failed to be re-graded," he wrote.

President of the S.C. Bar Lanneau "Lanny" Lambert said the Bar had no position on the matter and he had no "personal opinion" about what had happened. The Bar has about 13,000 lawyer members.

Attorney General Henry McMaster said the state constitution gives the Supreme Court the right to be the final arbiter of any bar admissions dispute.

Any aggrieved applicant might have depending on circumstances an avenue of appeal through federal courts, McMaster said. He said he had confidence in the Supreme Court.

Schools' pass rates released

Also Friday, the Supreme Court released the percentages of the state's two law schools' graduates who passed the bar.

Of the University of South Carolina's 211 May graduates who took the bar, 193 passed and 19 failed for a 91 percent pass rate.

Of the new Charleston School of Law's 166 grads who took the test, 116 passed and 50 failed a 69 percent pass rate. This is the school's first graduating class.

USC associate dean Rob Wilcox said, of the 20 who had their grades changed, two were USC May grads.

Dean Robert Gershon of the Charleston School of Law did not reply to queries as to how many of the 18 remaining people whose grades were changed were his school's alumni.

Graduates of other schools also take the exam.

Toal: 'Cheap shot'

Toal took issue with part of a story about the exam results in The State on Friday.

The newspaper left three messages for Toal on Thursday at her office and on her mobile phone. A court official told a reporter Toal was out of town at a conference, but no specifics were available.

The story reported the efforts to reach her, saying Toal was "said to be at an out-of-town conference" and did not reply to messages.

She said she thought the wording contained a "cheap shot" that implied she might not be out of town.

Toal said she was in Philadelphia to present an award at a national conference.

"My schedule doesn't revolve around calling you folks when I'm out of town."