A rule that requires state-accredited law schools in California to maintain bar passage rates of at least 40 percent has prompted a federal lawsuit.

The Southern California Institute of Law filed suit on February 4 against 22 sitting and former members of the Committee of Bar Examiners of the State Bar of California in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. It alleged that the recently adopted bar passage minimum—and the committee’s authority to oversee state-accredited law schools in the first place—are unconstitutional.

The law school claimed that the committee violated its own internal procedures in adopting the rule, and accused committee members of waging a vendetta against it.

The school’s 42-page complaint detailed alleged free-speech and due-process violations, but the main focus was the bar passage rule. Adopted in December, it applies to a cumulative bar passage rate over five years and is retroactive. Previously, the committee considered bar passage rates, but did not set out a minimum. Schools that don’t meet the 40 percent standard this year would receive notices of noncompliance, and by 2016 non-compliant schools could face probation and loss of their state accreditation.

Shortly after adoption of the rule, committee chairman Sean McCoy told The California Bar Journal that the change was intended to help the panel gauge the quality of the education at state-accredited schools and clarify its expectations. A representative of the state bar declined to comment on the pending lawsuit.

The rule was opposed by administrators at many of the 18 California-accredited law schools, which had a cumulative pass rate of 32 percent for first-time takers on the July 2012 bar exam and 11 percent for repeaters.

Southern California Institute dean Stanislaus Pulle declined to comment, beyond saying, "We live in a nation of laws."

The school, which offers only a part-time night program at campuses in Santa Barbara and Ventura, Calif., claimed in its complaint that the rule is unfair because many of its students are older, working parents of moderate financial means who may lack access to pricy bar exam prep courses.The rule would force the school to "narrow its admissions gate" and alter its curriculum focus on bar exam preparation, according to the complaint.

"This new standard is a wooden test that fails to take into account the school’s mission, the nature of its student body, the quality of its faculty and the academic program, its efforts to maximize students’ chances of success on the bar exam, or other factors considered historically during the re-accreditation process," the complaint reads.

The school also objected that it could suffer for bar passage rates established before it knew it would have to meet the threshold. The 40 percent figure was picked arbitrarily, without any proof that a school’s bar passage rate is a reflection of the quality of its educational program, the complaint said.

Finally, in an allegation that could prove sweeping should the court agree, the school challenged the committee’s regulatory authority. The panel operates on behalf of the California Supreme Court, but it should be up to the legislative and executive branches to set out accreditation standards, the school alleged.

"The legislature provided no policy guidelines and gave no directions for the implementation of such policies," the complaint reads. "By acting in violation of state constitutional prohibitions against judicial and quasi-judicial rule-making, defendants acted without legal authority."

The complaint includes allegations that several people involved with the committee have attempted to thwart the school’s ability to obtain a curriculum waiver and have tried to oust Pulle from his position by introducing a mandate that only U.S.-trained attorney may serve as law deans. Pulle was educated in the United Kingdom.

The law school seeks an injunction against the enforcement of the new bar passage rule plus damages.

Contact Karen Sloan at ksloan@alm.com.