Law Students Civil Rights Research Council, Inc. v. Wadmond

PETITIONER: Law Students Civil Rights Research Council, Inc., et al.
RESPONDENT: Lowell Wadmond, et al.
LOCATION: New York State Bar Association

DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1970-1971)

CITATION: 401 US 154 (1971)
ARGUED: Oct 15, 1970
DECIDED: Feb 23, 1971
GRANTED: Jan 12, 1970

David W. Peck - for the appellees
Norman Dorsen - for the appellants

Facts of the case

The requirements to be eligible for admission to the Bar in New York included that the applicant must be a citizen of the United States, have lived in the state of New York for six months, and passed a written examination. In addition, the Bar required the creation of Committees on Character and Fitness to determine whether an applicant “possesses the character and general fitness requisite for an attorney and counselor-at-law.” The Committees required two affidavits in support of the applicant and a questionnaire filled out by the applicant. The petitioners were organizations and individuals representing a class of law students and recent law school graduates who sued two of the Committees by claiming that the vague and overbroad questions violated the applicants’ First Amendment rights. The questions related to the applicants’ political beliefs, membership in political association, and loyalty to the United States Constitution. A three-judge panel of the district court granted partial relief with respect to specific questions but sustained the validity of the New York system as a whole.


Does the New York system for admission to the state bar violate applicants’ First Amendment rights?

Media for Law Students Civil Rights Research Council, Inc. v. Wadmond

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 15, 1970 in Law Students Civil Rights Research Council, Inc. v. Wadmond

Warren E. Burger:

We’ll hear arguments in Number 49, Law Students Civil Rights Council against Wadmond.

You may proceed whenever you’re ready Mr. Dorsen.

Norman Dorsen:

Thank you very much.

Mr. Chief Justice, members of the Court.

This is a third in the succession of Bar admission cases that the Court has been hearing.

It’s an appeal from a decision of a three-judge court to the southern district of New York.

The suit in this case was an affirmative suit brought by three law students, three applicants to the Bar of the state of New York and three organizations, including a Law Students Civil Rights Research Council, challenging the constitutionality of certain statutes and statewide judicial rules governing the admission to the New York Bar.

In addition, the complaint made similar allegations concerning the implementation of the statutes and rules through questionnaires, affidavits, interviews and other practices I shall describe shortly.

A majority of the three-judge court below, Judges Friendly and Bonsal granted the appellants partial relief, but upheld its challenge statutes and statewide judicial rules.

Judge Constance Motley, in an extensive dissenting opinion, took the view that the principle portions of the majority opinion were erroneous and she would have broadly declare unconstitutional one New York statute on its face, and the other as applied.

It’s important for an understanding of this case to perceive the type of personal and political screening program that takes place in the State of New York.

The statutes and judicial rules that are relevant are set out in the appendix to the brief for appellants, starting on page 1a.

Section 90 of the New York judiciary law provides, “the admission to and removal from the practice by the appellate division takes place when the appellate division and the State Board of Law Examiners are satisfied that each person who passes the bar exam, possess the character and general fitness requisite for an attorney and counselor at law.”

Rule 81, immediately underneath Section 90 on page 3a of the appendix provides, this is an implementing rule that has the effect of a statute, “that each applicant to the bar must produce before a committee a character and fitness evidence that he possess the good moral character and general fitness requisite for an attorney.”

On the facing page, page 2a, is Rule 9406 which provides “that no person shall receive a certificate from any committee, any bar committee and no person shall be admitted to practice as an attorney unless he shall furnish satisfactory proof to the effect among other things that he believes in the form of the Government of the United States and is loyal to such Government” and there are three other requirements including citizenship and residence.

Now, these standards for admissions in the State of New York are implemented by a complex procedural mechanisms that delves deeply into the political and personal lives of each applicant.

I shall be more specific about this later.

It will suffice to say now that each applicant must answer extended questionnaires that raise questions regarding every aspect of his life.

Secondly, there are so-called home life affidavits which must be submitted to the bar committee by persons who know the applicant personally and have visited in his home.

Third, there are independent investigations that take place, including inquiries of the applicant’s school and draft board, his former employers and to police and other agencies, as well as the general public through publication in the New York law journal.

Finally, after all the information is reviewed by a committee member, a personal interview takes place.

If there is nothing unorthodox about an applicant, the interview will be perfunctory and admission will follow almost automatically.

But if there some unorthodox political activity or associations, there is an intensified investigation, new interviews, new questions and sometimes a delay in admission at personal and professional cost to the applicant.

All these takes place at a low level of visibility, but the effect on the constitutional rights of the applicant is destructive.

First, it involves an unwarranted intrusion broadly into their political and personal privacy and secondly, it inhibits the exercise of First Amendment rights by law students and applicants because of a fear of delay in admission.

All this is destructive to them, it’s also destructive to the national interest as I shall try to --

Is this questionnaire used in all departments?

This is the second department.

Norman Dorsen:

There are -- this case involves the second department and the first department, but there are questionnaires in all four departments.

And of the same character?