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Opponents of California’s “Baby Bar” exam are crying foul over a California State Bar committee’s lobbying of Governor Gray Davis to retain the test, given to first-year students in unaccredited law schools. Critics say a letter the committee of bar examiners sent to Davis Sept. 1 requesting a veto of pending legislation violates State Bar policy by not containing a disclaimer that the request was not adopted by the bar’s Board of Governors and should not be construed as the association’s overall position. “They are violating a rule of the Board of Governors,” James Liontas, dean of Mountain View, Calif.’s unaccredited Peninsula University College of Law, said Friday. “The Board of Governors is the policy-making body of the Bar, not the committee of bar examiners,” he said. “So when the committee goes out and sends letters without disclaimers, it’s acting improperly.” Liontas, who sponsored the bill, fears that the committee’s letter might inappropriately sway Davis into vetoing the legislation that’s headed for the governor’s desk after passing the California Senate and Assembly. Bar officials, however, say they’re confident the letter isn’t misleading because it’s written on committee of bar examiners letterhead. “If it was the State Bar speaking, it would be on State Bar letterhead,” Jerome Braun, the State Bar’s San Francisco-based senior executive for admissions, said Monday. The controversy revolves around Assembly Bill 1042, which by 2003 would repeal the Baby Bar — officially known as the First-Year Law Students Examination — that students at unaccredited law schools must pass to continue their educations. The exam was created by the Legislature in 1938 to weed out students who have virtually no chance of passing the General Bar Exam upon graduation. Liontas and other critics call the Baby Bar unconstitutional and argue that it discriminates against minorities and students who can’t afford to attend more prominent law schools. Liontas has tried to get the Baby Bar killed for years, but his legislation was consistently vetoed by former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson. There has been wide speculation, however, that Democrat Davis might approve AB 1042. The bill, introduced by Calif. Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, got strong bipartisan support in passing the Senate 29-6 on June 22 and the Assembly 50-18 on Aug. 30. Davis’ office did not return a telephone call seeking comment. In their three-page letter to Davis, members of the State Bar’s committee of bar examiners argued that the current legislation isn’t in the best interests of the people of California or students at unaccredited law schools. “The first-year examination has been required of these students since the mid-1930s … in response to concerns that non-accredited law schools were, in essence, diploma mills that were unfairly accepting tuition fees from persons who had no reasonable likelihood of passing the Bar examination,” John Hisserich, the L.A.-based chairman of the committee, wrote. The committee has every right to express its position, Liontas said, but it must distinguish its own stands from those of the overall Bar. As proof, he pointed to the minutes of a Feb. 5 meeting at which the Board of Governors adopted a resolution requiring committees taking legislative positions to include disclaimers stating that they were not speaking for the State Bar. Braun, who got the Board of Governors’ approval in June before the committee fired off its letter, conceded that there was no disclaimer in the letter to Davis, but felt that was no problem. “It’s pretty clear to me that this is the committee speaking,” he said. “I do know the letter was copied to the Board of Governors, to [executive director] Judy Johnson and to [chief legislative counsel] Larry Doyle, and nobody raised the issue that Jim has raised.”

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