401 U.S. 154 (1971), 49, Law Students Civil Rights Research Council v. Wadmond

Docket Nº:No. 49
Citation:401 U.S. 154, 91 S.Ct. 720, 27 L.Ed.2d 749
Party Name:Law Students Civil Rights Research Council v. Wadmond
Case Date:February 23, 1971
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 154

401 U.S. 154 (1971)

91 S.Ct. 720, 27 L.Ed.2d 749

Law Students Civil Rights Research Council

v.

Wadmond

No. 49

United States Supreme Court

Feb. 23, 1971

Argued October 15, 1970

APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT

FOR THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK

Syllabus

Appellants challenge, primarily on First Amendment vagueness and overbreadth grounds, the system for screening applicants for admission to the New York Bar. To carry out the statutory requirement that the Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court "be satisfied that such person possesses the character and general fitness requisite for an attorney and counselor at law," Committees on Character and Fitness receive affidavits from two persons (one of whom must be a practicing attorney) acquainted with the applicant, and a questionnaire completed by the applicant. The Committees also conduct personal interviews with each applicant. As the final step before admission to the Bar, the applicant must take an oath that he will support the United States and New York Constitutions. Appellants attack the procedure not because any applicant has ever been unjustifiably denied permission to practice law in New York, but on the basis that it works a "chilling effect" upon the exercise of free speech and association of law students. The three-judge District Court found certain items on the questionnaire so vague, overbroad, and intrusive on applicants' privacy as to be of doubtful constitutional validity, but upheld the statute and rules as valid on their face, and with the exceptions noted, sustained the validity of the procedure.

Held: I

1. The "character and general fitness" requirement for admission to the New York Bar is not violative of the Constitution. Pp. 159-160.

(a) The requirement has been construed by appellees to encompass no more than "dishonorable conduct relevant to the legal profession." P. 159.

(b) The current third-party affidavits, setting forth the nature and extent of affiants' acquaintance with the applicant, do not infringe upon the applicant's right to privacy. P. 160.

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2. New York's Rule that an applicant furnish proof that he "believes in the form of government of the United States and is loyal to such government," is not constitutionally invalid in light of appellees' construction that the Rule places no burden of proof on the applicant, that the "form of government" and the "government" refer solely to the Constitution, and that "belief" and "loyalty" mean no more than willingness to take the constitutional oath and ability to do so in good faith. Pp. 161-164.

3. The challenged items on the modified questionnaire are not constitutionally [91 S.Ct. 723] invalid, as one is precisely tailored to conform to this Court's decisions on organizational membership and association, and the other is merely supportive of appellees' task of ascertaining the applicant's good faith in taking the constitutional oath. Pp. 164-166.

4. New York's carefully administered screening system does not necessarily result in chilling the exercise of constitutional freedoms, and whether a different policy might be wiser rests with that State's policymaking bodies. P. 167.

299 F.Supp. 117, affirmed.

STEWART, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and HARLAN, WHITE, and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined. HARLAN, J., filed a concurring opinion, ante, p. 34. BLACK, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which DOUGLAS, J., joined, post, p. 174. MARSHALL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN, J., joined, post p. 185.

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STEWART, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE STEWART delivered the opinion of the Court.

An applicant for admission to the Bar of New York must be a citizen of the United States, have lived in the State for at least six months, and pass a written examination conducted by the State Board of Law Examiners. In addition, New York requires that the Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court in the judicial department where an applicant resides must "be satisfied that such person possesses the character and general fitness requisite for an attorney and counselor at law." New York Judiciary Law § 90, subd. 1, par. a (1968).1 To carry out this provision, the New York Civil Practice Law and Rules require the appointment, in each of the four Judicial Departments into which the Supreme Court is divided, of a Committee or Committees on Character and Fitness.2 Section 528.1 of the Rules of the New York Court of Appeals for the Admission of Attorneys and Counsellors at Law requires that the character and general fitness specified in Judiciary Law § 90

must be shown by the affidavits of two reputable persons residing in the city or county in which [the applicant] resides, one of whom must be a practicing attorney of the Supreme Court of this State.3

The Committees also require

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the applicant himself to fill out a questionnaire.4 After receipt of the affidavits and questionnaire, the Committees conduct a personal interview with each applicant. As a final step before actual admission to the Bar, an applicant must take an oath that he will support the Constitutions of the United States and of the State of New York.5

This case involves a broad attack, primarily on First Amendment vagueness and overbreadth grounds, upon this system for screening applicants for admission to the New York Bar. The appellants, plaintiffs in the trial court, are organizations and individuals claiming to represent a class of law students and law graduates similarly situated, seeking or planning to seek admission to practice law in New York. They commenced two separate actions for declaratory and injunctive relief in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, naming as defendants two Committees on Character [91 S.Ct. 724] and Fitness and their members and two Appellate Divisions and their judges.6 The complaints attacked the statutes, rules, and screening procedures as invalid on their face or as applied in the First and Second Departments. A three-judge court was convened, and consolidated the two suits.

In a thorough opinion, the court considered the appellants' claims and found certain items on the questionnaires as they then stood to be so vague, overbroad, and intrusive upon applicants' private lives as to be of doubtful constitutional validity.7 It granted the partial

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relief indicated by these findings, approving or further amending the revised questions submitted by the appellees to conform to its opinion.8 It upheld the statutes and rules as valid on their face, and, with the exceptions noted, sustained the validity of New York's system. This appeal followed, and we noted probable jurisdiction. 396 U.S. 999.9

We note at the outset that no person involved in this case has been refused admission to the New York Bar. Indeed, the appellants point to no case in which they claim any applicant has ever been unjustifiably denied permission to practice law in New York State under these or earlier statutes, rules, or procedures. The basic thrust of the appellants' attack is, rather, that New

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York's system by its very existence works a "chilling effect" upon the free exercise of the rights of speech and association of students who must anticipate having to meet its requirements.

I

The three-judge District Court, although divided on other questions, was unanimous in finding no constitutional infirmity in New York's statutory requirement that applicants for admission to its Bar must possess "the character and general fitness requisite for an attorney and counselor at law."10 We have no difficulty in affirming this holding. See Konigsberg v. State Bar, 366 U.S. 36, 441; Schware v. Board of Bar Examiners, 353 U.S. 232, 247 (Frankfurter, J., concurring). Long usage in New York and elsewhere has given well defined contours to this requirement, which the appellees have construed [91 S.Ct. 725] narrowly as encompassing no more than "dishonorable conduct relevant to the legal profession," see 299 F.Supp. at 144 n. 20 (separate opinion of Motley, J.); see also Schware v. Board of Bar Examiners, supra, at 247 (Frankfurter, J., concurring). The few reported cases in which bar admission has been denied on character grounds in New York all appear to have involved instances of misconduct clearly inconsistent with the standards of a lawyer's calling.11

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This Court itself requires of applicants for admission to practice before it that "their private and professional characters shall appear to be good."12 Every State, plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands, requires some similar qualification.13

But, the appellants contend, even though the statutory standard may be constitutionally valid, the methods used by the Committees to satisfy themselves that applicants meet that standard are not. Specifically, the appellants object to the terms of the third-party affidavits attesting to an applicant's good moral character. During this litigation, the appellees revised the affidavit forms in several respects. Whatever may have been said of the affidavits formerly used, we can find nothing in the present forms remotely vulnerable to constitutional attack. In the Second Department, for example, an affiant is asked to state whether he has visited the applicant's home and, if so, how often. We think it borders on the frivolous to say that such an inquiry offends the applicant's "right to privacy protected by the First, Fourth, Ninth, and Fourteenth Amendments." It is the applicant who selects the two people who will sign affidavits on his behalf, and the Committees may reasonably inquire as to the nature and extent of an affiant's actual...

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