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MCLE Self-Assessment Test

Judge’s ruling protects bar applicants' personal information

By Laura Ernde
Staff Writer

The State Bar won’t be required to release bar applicants’ personal information – including race, law school grade-point average, LSAT and bar exam scores, a judge ruled last month.

The San Francisco County Superior Court ruling, which affirmed the bar’s decision to protect applicants’ individually identifiable personal information for privacy reasons, could put an end to eight years of litigation brought against the State Bar by UCLA law professor Richard Sander and others who sought 36 years of detailed information to conduct research on law school admissions practices.

“The bar is committed to protecting the individual privacy interests of all applicants who take the bar exam,” said Elizabeth Rindskopf Parker, executive director of the State Bar of California.

The ruling found that releasing the sensitive, personal information of applicants in this case would have “real, personal consequences for State Bar applicants” because it could inadvertently identify individuals and that “non-disclosure of the data protects the general public from the adverse consequences of disclosure.”

The State Bar has opposed releasing the data, arguing it violates the commitment made to law students regarding privacy and the bar’s limited use of their records and personal information. No other state bar has released this kind of data.

Judge Mary E. Wiss ruled in the bar’s favor, citing a number of factors including privacy protections and a new provision that was added to the State Bar Act in 2016 saying that admissions records are confidential and shall not be released. 

Sander’s legal team had proposed several protocols for releasing the data without identifying individuals, but Wiss found that there would still be a risk of matching individuals with bar exam scores, race and other information. In addition, she found that the protocols called for creation of new records from the data, which the bar is not required to do under the California Public Records Act. 

Intervenors in the lawsuit included Black Women Lawyers Association of Los Angeles, the John M. Langston Bar Association of Los Angeles, and more than a dozen attorneys licensed in California. Law school professor Erika Wilson testified during the trial in this case that because she was just one of four black women to graduate from UCLA in her class year, disclosure of the data could unfairly identify her.

The ruling reflected those concerns. “The State Bar’s data could generate unhealthy comparisons among lawyers, law students and other professionals, and impede the goal of achieving greater diversity in the legal profession,” Wiss wrote.

Additionally, the judge balanced the privacy interests, concluding that the private interest of individual applicants in non-disclosure clearly outweighs the public interest served by disclosure of the records because disclosure would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.

The State Bar declined to release the data in 2007, citing privacy concerns, and Sander filed suit. The trial court initially determined that the State Bar’s admissions records were not public records.

In December 2013, the California Supreme Court held that “under the common law right of public access, there is a sufficient public interest in the information contained in the admissions database such that the State Bar is required to provide access to it if the information can be provided in a form that protects the privacy of applicants and if no countervailing interest outweighs the public’s interest in disclosure.”

Following that, Wiss held a bench trial this summer. Sander has not said whether he will appeal.