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The Georgia Supreme Court wants to reveal the names of bar applicants appealing their cases. In recent years, the court typically has used only a party’s initials when referring to his or her appeal of bar admission rulings. However, the court recently reissued a bar application ruling and said that from now on it will identify by name those who appeal admissions rulings. The court also called for amendments to the rules governing confidentiality of admission appeal cases. “[T]he public’s right to know is paramount and overrides the individual’s right to privacy, especially when a bar applicant invokes the jurisdiction of the state’s judicial system to resolve his or her dispute,” the court said in an opinion reissued to address the confidentiality issue. In Re Johnston, No. S00A1352 (Sup. Ct. Ga. May 30, 2000). The case involved a bar applicant who voluntarily resigned from the New York state bar pending disciplinary proceedings. The court ruled, in its original opinion issued May 1 and in its reissued opinion, that the resignation constitutes a lawyer discipline under the State Bar of Georgia’s admission rules. This means the applicant has to take the entire bar examination rather than only the attorney’s portion, which is composed solely of the essay portion of the Georgia exam. The reissued opinion addressed the confidentiality issue, which was not raised in the first opinion. CONFLICT CITED Citing the need to set precedent on the issues raised in bar admissions cases, the court noted it increasingly writes and publishes opinions for these cases rather than issuing orders that only circulate to parties. This practice creates a conflict. The court’s opinions are public record, but the rules of bar admission provide that when an applicant files an appeal with the state Supreme Court, the appeal is docketed separately and kept out of the public record. The court has been inconsistent in identifying parties, sometimes keeping petitioner’s name confidential and other times referring to them by name. The court decided in Johnston that any applicant who chooses to appeal an adverse bar admissions ruling loses the right to keep the dispute private in the court’s opinions and orders. “A crucial part of the decision is the name of the parties,” the court noted. “Making the names public is especially important in bar admissions cases where the applicant’s reputation and recommendations are a critical part of the process in determining his or her fitness to practice law.” PRIVACY QUESTIONED Further, the court questioned the wisdom of keeping the entire record private in bar admissions cases. The court directed the Georgia Bar and the Board of Bar Admissions to reconsider and amend the rules, and designate which documents, if any, should be excluded from public record when an applicant files an appeal in the clerk’s office. “Right now, all those files are confidential and sealed in the clerk’s office,” says Hulett H. Askew III, director of the state Supreme Court’s Office of Bar Admissions. If the files were opened, a lot of potentially embarrassing information would be made public, which would become a huge concern to bar applicants, says Askew. “That’s the issue at stake — whether it’s right and proper to open these documents,” says Askew, adding that the information doesn’t necessarily reflect bar fitness. The Board to Determine Fitness of Bar Applicants will take up the court’s directive at its next meeting in September, Askew says. William P. Smith III, general counsel for the Georgia Bar, says his group does not make bar admission rules but will assist the admissions board. “We are always prepared to assist and to do as the court directs us,” says Smith. A CHILLING EFFECT ON APPEALS? Ann T. Johnston, the bar applicant in the case, says stripping confidentiality will have a chilling effect on bar applicant appeals. “I believe that what the court in effect has done … they attempted to silence me. And worse than that, they’ve attempted to silence future bar applicants,” Johnston says. She says she was shocked when the first opinion appeared with her name in it, as well as when the second opinion addressed the confidentiality issue. “My assumption throughout this process was the Supreme Court of Georgia would honor and obey its own lawfully promulgated rules and it would respect my right to privacy and confidentiality,” says Johnston. Johnston complains that she did not have an opportunity to brief the confidentiality issue. She filed a motion for reconsideration addressing the substantive matter in the case, but addressed the confidentiality issue in a letter to the court. Johnston, pro se, took her case to the state Supreme Court after the Board of Bar Examiners ruled she was not eligible to take only the attorneys’ portion of the exam. The court affirmed the board’s decision. Johnston says she intends to take the matter to federal court, claiming the decision violated her civil rights. Should Johnston appeal the court’s decision, it would be her latest in a long pursuit to clear her name and move on with her law career. She was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in Texas in 1988 at age 34 after being involved in an auto accident that left a college student dead. She was convicted of involuntary manslaughter with a finding of intoxication. Johnston maintained she was not drunk when the accident occurred. After the conviction, Johnston began a string of appeals that kept her out of prison until 1990. She then served four months of a 10-year sentence and was released. The conviction ended a career as a rising star in the Exxon Corp. legal department. Johnston graduated in the top 10 percent of her class at Tulane University School of Law in New Orleans. She joined Exxon in 1979 and rose quickly, despite what she describes as an alcohol problem. Her bosses regarded her as a young go-getter with the potential to rise to senior law management positions. Former colleagues described her as bent on success and obsessed with detail. Even after the accident in 1986, she was promoted to a counsel’s position in an Exxon branch in Connecticut. It wasn’t until after she lost her first appeal that she left Exxon to pursue further appeals. DISBARMENT REVERSED Johnston says the Exxon job involved several state-to-state transfers, and she took the bar exam in each state where she worked for the company, including New York. But she was suspended from practice and disbarred in New York because of the conviction. The Court of Appeals of New York reversed, holding Johnston could not automatically be disbarred because her conviction, while a felony in Texas, was not a felony in New York. While awaiting a bar hearing, Johnston resigned from the State Bar of New York. Johnston says she chose to resign rather than fight the action because she never intended to return and practice in that state. In her motion for reconsideration, Johnston challenged the Supreme Court of Georgia’s interpretation of New York law and its ruling that the resignation constitutes a discipline in another state. Additionally, Johnston says the conviction has been set aside, which would wipe out the New York disciplinary action. “I challenged the basis of their opinion as a matter of law and I asked them to defer the matter to the New York courts,” says Johnston. FULL RECOVERY CLAIMED Johnston says today she is a fully recovered alcoholic and completely rehabilitated. She became active in Alcoholics Anonymous, earned a psychology degree to better understand alcoholism, formed a nonprofit organization and has become an educator on problems of alcoholism and criminal justice reform. Johnston says she’s willing to appeal the decision to “make the point that this had nothing to do with my competency as a lawyer.” “The purpose of this [bar exam] rule is to test minimal competency. Nobody, not even anyone in the Office of Bar Admissions, would challenge my competency as a lawyer.” The basis of her appeal will be violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which recognizes alcoholism as a disability. Johnston says the court’s decision stems back to the accident that occurred while she was suffering from an untreated medical condition: alcoholism. The rules on exam administration violate the U.S. Constitution, she says, because they are used to discriminate against out-of-state test takers.

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