A federal judge has tentatively dismissed a Southern California law school’s challenge to a new state regulation that requires accredited institutions to post the bar examination pass rates of its graduates.
U.S. District Judge James Selna wrote that the requirement, part of new guidelines requiring the state’s accredited law schools to maintain a 40 percent bar passage rate, regulates commercial speech and, as such, does not violate the free speech rights of the Southern California Institute of Law.
“The decision vindicates the bar’s regulatory authority over these schools,” Sean McCoy, chairman of the Committee of Bar Examiners of the State Bar of California, wrote in a prepared statement. “It’s our responsibility to use that authority in a way that protects the integrity of the profession and protects the public.”
Stanislaus Pulle, dean of the Southern California Institute of Law in Ventura, Calif., declined to comment beyond saying that Selna’s order, handed down on Friday, was not yet final.
The Committee of Bar Examiners of the State Bar of California, the administrative branch of the California Supreme Court, now requires that all law schools accredited in California post on a separate page of their web sites bar passage information or a link to statistics on the bar’s web site.
The requirement, which was designed to address concerns that students were being misled by law schools regarding bar passage information, is part of guidelines that as of January 1 require accredited schools to meet a cumulative 40 percent bar passage rate over five years. Schools that don’t meet the standard this year would receive notices of noncompliance, and, if uncorrected, by 2016 could face probation and loss of their state accreditation the following year.
The Southern California Institute of Law, established in 1986, sued current and former members of the committee on February 4, claiming that the regulation violated its free speech and due process rights because it forced administrators to improperly publish statements that tie the quality of its education to bar passage rates.
The school, which was accredited in 1996 and offers a part-time evening program, maintains that bar passage rates have little to do with a quality legal education and fail to take into account the unique circumstances of its roughly 100 students, most of whom work during the day or lack the financial means to pay for expensive bar exam preparatory courses. School officials also feared that, under the new rule, which is retroactive to 2009, they would receive a notice of noncompliance in November.
The school also challenged the committee’s termination last year of a waiver pertaining to its satellite campus in Santa Barbara, Calif.
On June 12, Selna dismissed the complaint, but allowed the school to amend its allegations pertaining to its free speech rights under the First Amendment. He also denied the school’s motion for a preliminary injunction halting enforcement of the requirement.
The Southern California Institute of Law filed an opening brief before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit on August 9 to reverse those orders. The committee’s response is due on September 6.
Selna’s most recent tentative decision, if finalized, would dismiss the case entirely.
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