S.C. Supreme Court denies new requests to reconsider bar exam

COLUMBIA -- The S.C. Supreme Court has denied a formal request to reconsider the test results of a woman who failed the July bar exam, the woman's attorney confirmed Friday.

Meanwhile, two Charleston School of Law graduates who also flunked the test are questioning why the court refused to reconsider their results yet did so and gave passing grades to 20 others including the children of two prominent officials.

The chairman of the S.C. House Judiciary Committee, whose daughter was among the 20, is reiterating his call for change in the court's process.

"Any time you've got a test graded by individuals, you have a possibility for human error," said Rep. Jim Harrison, R-Richland.

Questions about the bar exam are being raised after the Supreme Court last month threw out results of one section of the exam, changing grades of 20 students who failed. The court had said in March it would not allow any appeal of a bar exam score.

S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal said Friday she couldn't recall a written request to reconsider the test results and declined to discuss specifics.

Charleston attorney William Runyon confirmed Friday he filed a petition to the high court on behalf of a graduate of the Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Lansing, Mich., who flunked the July exam. About a third of the 552 people who took the test were graduates of out-of-state law schools.

Runyon said his client, whom he declined to identify, failed two sections of the test but not the wills, trusts and estates section the court threw out Nov. 2, which resulted in the grade changes for the 20.

Under court rules, test-takers generally can't flunk more than one section of the seven-section test, given annually in February and July. Runyon contends that when the court threw out the section, it in effect said anyone passing at least five sections passed the entire test.

The court, in a written order Toal signed, declined to hear the case, Runyon said. Toal said she signs orders on behalf of the entire five-member court.

Runyon's client isn't the only test-taker who flunked to question the court's fairness.

Corbett Coats, who graduated from the Charleston School of Law in May, told The State this week she failed three of the six essay sections, but not the wills, trusts and estates section. She said in two of the sections, which she considered to be among the easiest parts of the test, she scored in the 40 percent range, well below the 70 percent threshold needed to pass.

For those sections, she said she used more than one test booklet, and she suspects the exam graders might not have received the extra booklets. But she said that when she called the Supreme Court after learning she flunked, she was told the court could not confirm whether it had received the extra booklets, citing the March order.

"Even if I passed, I would be upset about this," said Coats, who grew up in Mount Pleasant and got her undergraduate degree from the College of Charleston. "This goes against everything we learned in law school."

Fellow Charleston law school graduate Taylor Elliott told The State she was frustrated when she called the Supreme Court to inquire about the possibility of regrading one of the two essay sections she failed, which she noted she flunked by only a few points.

"I was told the decision was final, and I shouldn't be concerned about appealing," she recalled. "I just feel if there was an available appeal process for anyone, then it should have been made available for all of us."

Harrison said he doesn't believe the Legislature has the authority to fix the problem "short of a constitutional amendment."

Besides Harrison's daughter, the 20 whose grades the court changed included the daughter of longtime Circuit Judge Paul Burch of Pageland, who, like Harrison, contacted a court official after learning his daughter flunked. Harrison has stressed, though, he addressed only what he thought was an unusually high failure rate on a test section his daughter flunked.

The court said a "scrivener's error" involving another test-taker who flunked the section but was recorded as passing it led the court to throw out the entire section. The justices, in a statement posted Nov. 19 on the court's Web site, denied their decision was based on favoritism.

Harrison said he believes appeals, which were allowed before the March order, should be allowed in certain cases, such as the one Coats described. He said the Supreme Court and S.C. Bar the state's professional organization for lawyers should discuss whether appeals should be allowed in cases such as Elliott's.

"If there is a chance there can be human error, there needs to be an appeal process," Harrison said.