If racism is disqualifying for a juror, why not for an aspiring lawyer?

Nothing like the day after a holiday weekend to pose a difficult, potentially controversial, question, right?  But when the holiday weekend in question is one to celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., this particular question is certainly topical.

This is a post I have had rattling around inside of my head since this I read this weighty article from The Huffington Post.  Now, I know, for many, HP is not thought of as a place for weighty articles, but this one really fits the bill.

The article’s title is “Should White Supremacists Be Allowed to Practice Law?”  The article delves into the nature of the question and elaborates a bit on the underlying concept that people who wish to be admitted to the bar in any given state not only have to demonstrate competence in the law but also must satisfy “character and fitness” requirements to be issued a law license at all.

The HP article does an effective job of examining the thorny, and obviously problematic, nature of the problem with staking out a position that someone’s ideas or thoughts alone should prohibit them from being permitted to pursue a chosen profession – a profession for which they have otherwise demonstrated qualifications by passing the required tests and satisfying the objective criteria.  But — given that fundamental principles of white supremacy (for example) can be shown to go beyond mere beliefs and into promised actions and conduct that are at least inherently discriminatory and taken to the logical conclusion of the movement are even genocidal — the slope being argued over does not sound all that slippery in such a context.

Further, the slope our profession has to wrestle with on such a question is inherently slippery because of how subjective the admission standards are as to character and fitness as a concept — the idea that existing lawyers will evaluate the candidacy of applicants for admission to see if they have the requisite “character” and “fitness” to be a member of the profession.  Moreover, as someone who has represented quite a few folks in bar admission proceedings, I can tell you that the admissions process often creates seemingly ridiculous barriers to entry labelled as character and fitness matters.  Traffic offenses and underage drinking as just a few common examples where law school graduates frequently find themselves having to respond to orders to show cause why they shouldn’t be denied admission.

The notion that an avowed white supremacist would be deemed to be an acceptable candidate to practice law from a character standpoint when a person who struggled with a “lead foot” throughout college gets extra scrutiny seems laughable.

For a little more context, here are the admission standards in Tennessee from which character and fitness questions spring:

Tenn. Sup. Ct. R. 7 requires the Board of Law Examiners to decide that an applicant

has demonstrated the reputation and character that in the opinion of the Board indicates no reasonable basis for substantial doubts that the applicant will adhere to the standards of conduct  required of attorneys in this State.  (Section 1.03(d))

The same rule elaborates in more detail what this means:

(a) An applicant shall not be admitted if in the judgment of the Board there is reasonable doubt as to that applicant’s honesty, respect for the rights of others, and adherence to and obedience to the Constitution and laws of Tennessee and the United States as to justify the conclusion that such applicant is not likely to adhere to the duties and standards of conduct imposed on attorneys in this State. Any conduct which would constitute grounds for discipline if engaged in by an attorney in this State shall be considered by the Board in making its evaluation of the character of an applicant.  (Section 6.01)

If espousing an inherent belief that one race is inherently superior to other races and that certain races are so inferior that the world would be better off if they were eliminated from society is not something that would “justify a conclusion that such applicant is not likely to adhere to the duties and standards of conduct imposed on attorneys,” then what exactly is the point of referencing “respect for the rights of others” in such a standard?

And, if even you are inclined to agree that would move the needle in the direction of being unfit, then you probably still might have more difficulty agreeing with the idea that racism is not inherently as bad as white supremacy and is more just an idea or state of mind that should not be regulated and, thus, there can be no cogent argument made that just being a racist should prevent someone from being issued a law license.  After all, as noted above, in Tennessee, the standard requires the Board of Law Examiners to only look to conduct of an applicant which – if undertaken by someone who is already a lawyer could trigger discipline.  You would be hard pressed to find many instances of lawyer discipline imposed against a lawyer merely for holding dear to a belief system, no matter how ignorant or odious.

And, yet, quite recently, the United States Supreme Court issued its decision in Tharpe v. Sellers that reversed and remanded a case over a certificate of appealability in a death penalty case that turns on whether racist statements made by one of the jurors who voted for death could justify the reopening of habeas corpus proceedings premised upon arguments that improper racial animus infected the jury deliberations.

Although the analogy is admittedly not a perfect one, it seems very difficult to feel very comfortable with the idea that racism on the part of a member of the jury is unacceptable but that letting someone with the same views become a lawyer and, thus, be in the position of getting to routinely strike citizens from being selected to be on juries because of the color of their skin is just part of the system.

And, no this is not intended to be an advocacy piece for the proposed rule revision in Tennesee that I’ve written about before, because these questions are extremely ripe ones in my jurisdiction and other jurisdictions under even existing ethics rules.  In Tennessee and elsewhere, the rules already prohibit lawyers, regardless whether they are representing clients or not at the time, from engaging in conduct that is prejudical to the administration of justice.  (RPC 8.4.)

So, I guess the true question to struggle with is this:  Does empowering a racist by conferring a license to practice law on them something that is inherently prejudicial to the administration of justice?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *