Linda Klein of Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, Atlanta (Photo: Jason Doiy/ALM) Linda Klein of Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, Atlanta (Photo: Jason Doiy/ALM)

The Georgia Supreme Court on Monday overruled the Board of Examiners’ denial of a military spouse’s request to practice law without having to pass the state bar exam.

“Harriet O’Neal filed a waiver petition with the Board of Bar Examiners on November 30, 2017, asking that she be allowed to practice law in Georgia without sitting for the Georgia bar exam and without meeting the usual requirements for admission without examination. Specifically, O’Neal based her request for a waiver on her status as the spouse of an active member of the military who had been transferred here,” the court said in a unanimous unsigned opinion.

The board denied the request without giving a reason, the court said, vacating that decision and remanding the matter “pursuant to this Court’s inherent power in matters of attorney discipline and bar admissions.”

According to the court, O’Neal graduated from Louisiana State University Law School in 2014, took and passed the Louisiana bar exam and was admitted to practice in Louisiana in October 2014.

“Without more, O’Neal does not meet the general requirements for admission to the Georgia Bar on motion without examination, as outlined in the Rules Governing Admission to the Practice of Law, because (1) she passed the bar in Louisiana, which does not offer reciprocity with Georgia or any other state, and (2) she has not been ‘primarily engaged in the active practice of law’ for the preceding five years, as she has only been a lawyer for three years,” the court said.

But O’Neal requested a waiver of the requirements based on the board’s waiver policy for military spouses.

The court said the board denied O’Neal’s application without giving a reason, although later, in briefing to the Supreme Court, the board took issue with the Louisiana test, O’Neal’s experience and her law school grades.

The court remanded for the board “to clearly apply the military waiver policy and explain why.”

Heidi Faenza, director of the Board of Bar Examiners, said the board ”is reviewing the opinion and after completing its review, will make a determination as to how to proceed in light of the direction given by the Supreme Court.”

A group of Georgia lawyers went on record in support of O’Neal, including Linda Klein of Baker Donelson, former president of the American Bar Association.

Klein said by email Monday that, by vacating the Board of Bar Examiners’ decision, the Georgia Supreme Court has recognized the importance of the military spouse waiver program in helping address the problems that arise when a lawyer’s active duty spouse is relocated under military orders.

“Harriet O’Neal took on this challenge because she knew it was about more than one person,” Klein said. “She knew that it was about standing up for all those who will apply for military spouse waivers in the future and ensuring they face a process that is clear, fair and consistent.” Klein said the Supreme Court’s direction on remand “to clearly apply the military waiver policy” requires the Board of Examiners to explain its criteria and decisions.

“The affidavit of an attorney who supervised Harriet’s work, now part of the record, demonstrates her competence to practice law in Georgia. Hopefully future applicants will now have the opportunity to supply similar important information to support their waiver requests,” Klein said.

“Given the incredibly high unemployment rate among spouses of active duty service members, we need initiatives such as the military spouse waiver program,” Klein said. “Military spouse underemployment creates many problems that threaten our national defense.”

Klein said that retention of active duty military personnel “suffers when families don’t have sufficient income to repay the military spouse’s student loans.”