The Indiana State Board of Law Examiners is taking notice of a finding by the U.S. Department of Justice that Louisiana’s treatment of bar applicants with mental health conditions was in violation of the American with Disabilities Act.
Justice Department officials found that the Louisiana attorney licensure system’s practice of evaluating and treating bar applicants who have mental health disabilities was discriminatory. In particular, the DOJ concluded that the requirement that applicants to the state bar answer the mental health questions included on the National Conference of Bar Examiners Request for Preparation of a Character Report tended to screen out individuals based on stereotypes and assumptions.
The department put its findings in a letter to the Louisiana Supreme Court and requested court officials work with the DOJ to resolve the matter in an “amicable and cooperative fashion.”
Indiana’s application for admission to the bar contains the questions that were the focus of the DOJ investigation but, according to Bradley Skolnik, executive director of the Indiana State Board of Law Examiners, Indiana has not received a letter from the Justice Department.
The BLE is carefully reviewing the DOJ letter sent to Louisiana and will continue to monitor the situation, Skolnik said. “The board is committed to ensuring all policies and procedures comply with the ADA.”
Following a 2011 court order, Indiana’s board did modify one of its admission questions regarding diagnosis and treatment of any mental health disorder. Judge Tanya Walton Pratt of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana found the question to be improper under the ADA because it was overly broad and captured information not related to serious mental and emotional problems.
Skolnik said mental health and substance abuse issues, raised through questions on the bar admission application, are considered when assessing an individual’s character and fitness.
“The process is highly confidential because it does involve analysis of personal information,” he said. “The board has no desire to be intrusive but it does have a very high duty to ensure applicants have the ability to practice law and discharge their duties.”
According to the Justice Department, the Louisiana Supreme Court Committee on Bar Admissions was using the responses to the mental health questions to single out applicants.
The Louisiana admissions committee was recommending conditional admission to applicants with mental health diagnoses. These applicants had to sign consent agreements that gave the Office of Disciplinary Counsel permission to monitor the applicants, have “full and unfettered access” to their medical records, and to contact their employers and supervising attorneys to discuss the conditional admission.
The Indiana State Board of Law Examiners can give conditional admission if it has concerns about an applicant’s drug, alcohol, psychological or behavioral problems. Skolnik said a conditional admission could have provisions attached that, for example, would require an applicant to check in on a quarterly basis or be subject to testing for substance abuse.
In lieu of denying admission, Skolnik said, the board can ask for a conditional admission to make sure the applicant meets the standards necessary for the practice of law.
Other than the adjustment order by Pratt, the board has not made any significant changes to the application for admission in several years. However, the board did recently launch an online application process. Individuals wanting to take the bar exam in Indiana can now file for admittance electronically. Skolnik said the response has been “very positive” and the online process has improved efficiency.
Also, the board is still in the process of considering changes to the bar exam itself.
The BLE submitted a proposal in 2013 to replace the essay topics on commercial law, personal property and taxation with debtor/creditor law and employment law. In addition, the board suggested including six topics from the Multistate Bar Exam in the Indiana Essay Examination.
Skolnik said the public has made “thoughtful comments” on the proposed changes that the board is carefully considering. He anticipates the board will soon make adjustments to its suggestions.•