Chief Justice, Tani Cantil-Sakauye California Supreme Court
Chief Justice, Tani Cantil-Sakauye California Supreme Court (Jason Doiy / The Recorder)

SACRAMENTO—The California Supreme Court has declined to temporarily lower the score needed to pass the state bar exam despite pleas from lawmakers and the deans of dozens of law schools.

Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye on Thursday told Democratic members of the Assembly Judiciary Committee that the court “lacks a fully developed analysis with supporting evidence” needed to justify reducing the state’s long-time passing, or “cut,” score of 144.

“Because an informed and deliberative process will allow the court to engage in the best decision-making, the court respectfully declines to act in the absence of an investigation that examines all relevant data and factors,” Cantil-Sakauye wrote.

The chief justice has asked bar leaders to study the exam and its declining pass rates and to issue a report with recommendations by Dec. 1. “Please be assured, however, that the court will proceed with dispatch once presented with the state bar’s analysis,” Cantil-Sakauye said in her letter.

Democratic legislators and law school deans have complained that California’s cut score, the second-highest in the nation, is not based on any scientific rationale.

“The effect of this low bar-passage rate is to put our students and our law schools at a competitive disadvantage,” Stephen Ferruolo, dean of the University of San Diego Law School, said last month. “The low bar-passage rate is also I believe adversely impacting the quality of the California bar and the preparedness of California lawyers.”

The percentage of law school graduates passing the bar has declined in recent years. Just 43 percent of those who took the July 2016 test passed—a 32-year low. Twenty California law schools accredited by the American Bar Association signed a letter in February that urged the state Supreme Court to lower the cut score while the bar studies the cause of the slide.

Assemblyman Mark Stone, D-Scotts Valley, who chairs the state Judiciary Committee, said he was disappointed by the court’s decision.

“But I recognize that the court has the ultimate and unilateral authority to make that decision,” Stone said in an email. “I am encouraged that the court understands the importance and urgency of this issue.”

The State Bar of California Board of Trustees was scheduled to consider authorizing four studies on the exam, ranging from the validity of its content to whether the passing score is appropriate, at its hearing Friday afternoon.