Grade changes place high court at odds with state examining board

COLUMBIA -- The head of the board that grades the qualifying exam for South Carolina's new lawyers says he was left out of the loop about a scoring error the Supreme Court cited in reversing grades for 20 people, including the children of a state lawmaker and a circuit judge.

S.C. Board of Law Examiners chairman George Hearn said neither the high court nor any of his board members informed him about the matter after the board submitted final scores of the July exam to the court before they were posted Oct. 26.

"Our board doesn't have anything to do with it once we report the scores," he told The State in an interview Monday. "Anything that happens afterward is done by the court."

That apparently raises questions about what little the Supreme Court has said on the matter that it was acting after "a scoring error reported by the examiner" Oct. 31.

It also would seem to put the court at odds with a new rule it imposed in March, banning any appeals and changes in grades after exam results are released.

Hearn, a longtime Conway lawyer who is married to S.C. Court of Appeals Chief Judge Kaye Hearn, said he is concerned that the controversy has hurt the reputation of the 13-member board.

The board is responsible for administering the seven-section test given annually in February and July. Lawyers can't practice law in South Carolina without passing it.

"It takes literally hundreds of hours each year for the members of my committee to discharge their duties," said Hearn, who has served on the board for 22 years and has been chairman for about 10 years. "We work very hard. I think we do a very good job."

Hearn declined to discuss details of the grading process, citing court rules, referring questions on specifics to the Supreme Court.

Chief Justice Jean Toal continued to be tight-lipped about details surrounding the re-grading.

"Anything I say would be said only after I discussed it with the court," Toal said Monday.

The court on its Web site Friday cited a scoring error reported by the examiner of the wills, trusts and estates section of the test as its reason for reversing the grades of the 20 test takers, though it didn't give any specifics about the error. The court on Nov. 2 said it would not consider the results of that section.

The justices said the error was reported by the examiner to the clerk of court on Oct. 31 five days after the court first posted the test results on its Web site.

Of the 552 people who took the July exam, 124, or 22 percent, failed including the daughters of S.C. House Judiciary Committee chairman Jim Harrison, R-Richland, and longtime Circuit Judge Paul Burch of Pageland, who were among the 20 whose grades were reversed.

At least five of the 20, including Harrison's and Burch's daughters, had recently worked as clerks for sitting circuit judges, a review by The State found.

Harrison and Burch told The State last week they contacted George Hearn after their daughters informed them about their test results. Burch said Hearn told him there was no appeal process.

Justice Don Beatty of Spartanburg said Monday that favoritism wasn't a factor in the court's decision to reverse the grades. He declined to discuss specifics. "To my knowledge, there's never been a change of a grade or score based on who your parent is."

Beatty also said that, as of the court's last meeting on the matter, neither he nor, to his knowledge, the other justices knew the identities of any of the 20.

The court's other three justices James Moore, John Waller and Costa Pleicones declined to discuss specifics.