Diploma Privilege and the Constitution
Law Review Article
bar exam alternatives
The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting shutdowns are affecting every aspect of society. The legal profession and the justice system have been profoundly disrupted at precisely the time when there is an unprecedented need for legal services to deal with a host of legal issues generated by the pandemic, including disaster relief, health law, insurance, labor law, criminal justice, domestic violence, and civil rights. The need for lawyers to address these issues is great but the prospect of licensing new lawyers is challenging due to the serious health consequences of administering the bar examination during the pandemic.
State Supreme Courts are actively considering alternative paths to licensure. One such alternative is the diploma privilege, a path to licensure currently used only in Wisconsin. Wisconsin’s privilege, limited to graduates of its two in-state schools, has triggered constitutional challenges never fully resolved by the lower courts. As states consider emergency diploma privileges to address the pandemic, they will face these unresolved constitutional issues.
This Article explores those constitutional challenges and concludes that a diploma privilege limited to graduates of in-state schools raises serious Dormant Commerce Clause questions that will require the state to tie the privilege to the particular competencies in-state students develop and avenues they have to demonstrate those competencies to the state’s practicing bar over three years. Meeting that standard will be particularly difficult if a state adopts an in-state privilege on an emergency basis. States should consider other options, including privileges that do not prefer in-state schools. The analysis is important both for states considering emergency measures and for those that might restructure their licensing after the pandemic.