NYSBA: Bar Admission Application Question on Police Interactions, Sealed Records, Juvenile Delinquency Is Illegal, Must Be Revised
The New York State Bar admission application question that asks potential lawyers about their encounters with law enforcement and criminal history is illegal, negatively impacts efforts to diversify the profession, and should be immediately revised, the New York State Bar Association recommends.
The question violates two state laws, the New York State Human Rights Law and the Family Court Act, according to a report prepared in response to a request for input from the Office of Court Administration. The association’s governing body, its House of Delegates, approved the report on Saturday.
“The question has had a chilling effect on potential lawyers – especially people of color – which flies in the face of much-needed efforts to improve diversity at all levels of the legal system,” said T. Andrew Brown, NYSBA president. “We have heard from deans and directors of law school admissions that people of color who want to become lawyers are reluctant to invest the considerable time and money to attend law school because they worry that they could be rejected for admission to the bar due to a police interaction.”
The legal profession routinely ranks as one of the least diverse in the country. Recent American Bar Association surveys found only 5 percent of lawyers identify as Black and 5 percent as Latino. Meanwhile, while Blacks make up 15 percent of New York’s population, they account for 38 percent of arrests, according to the latest data compiled from the Judicial Friends Report on Systemic Racism in New York Courts.
The report approved by the House of Delegates recommends rewording the question to make clear that sealed criminal records, juvenile delinquency and youthful offender proceedings, dismissed cases and arrests that are no longer pending that did not result in a conviction do not have to be disclosed.
Question 26 currently reads: “Have you ever, either as an adult or a juvenile, been cited, ticketed, arrested, taken into custody, charged with, indicted, convicted or tried for, or pleaded guilty to, the commission of any felony or misdemeanor or the violation of any law, or been the subject of any juvenile delinquency or youthful offender proceeding?”
NYSBA is asking that Question 26 be revised to conform with the Human Rights Law and the Family Court Act and that all other questions make clear that applicants do not have to disclose conduct protected by the two laws.
NYSBA’s Working Group on Question 26 of the New York State Bar Admission Application as well as several of the association’s committees — Criminal Justice; Children and the Law; Legal Aid; Legal Education and Admission to the Bar; and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion — and its Young Lawyers Section supported the report. The Task Force on Racism, Social Equity, and the Law co-sponsored it.
This is not the first time that the association recommended changes in the bar admission application. NYSBA led an effort in 2019 to get questions on mental health removed from the bar admission application based in large part on opposition from law school students, who said the inquiries were stigmatizing and discouraged those who needed treatment from seeking it. Chief Judge Janet DiFiore announced in February 2020 that the questions would be removed.
Admissions to the bar is under the auspices of the Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court, which DiFiore oversees.