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The state’s top court has changed the grades for 20 people — including the children of a prominent state lawmaker and a longtime circuit judge — who earlier flunked the test required to practice law in South Carolina.
The S.C. Supreme Court in last week’s order said the wills, trusts and estates section of the July exam would “not be considered” in determining a test-taker’s overall score, though the justices gave no reasons for their decision.
The students include the daughters of state Rep. Jim Harrison, R-Richland, chairman of the powerful House Judiciary Committee; and Circuit Judge Paul Burch of Pageland, The State confirmed Thursday in interviews with the two men.
The State newspaper could not confirm the identities of the other 18 whose grades were changed.
The Supreme Court admits people to the bar and has the final say in grading bar exams.
Most other states do not allow scores to be reconsidered after results are published, the court has said.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal, who was said to be at an out-of-town conference, did not return three messages left at her office and on her mobile phone.
Both Harrison and Burch said they contacted bar officials about the results. They said their actions were proper.
Harrison said that after his daughter, Catherine, learned she had failed, she began checking with friends who had taken the exam. She found a large number had problems with the test.
On learning that, Harrison said, he called the clerk of the Supreme Court and attorney George Hearn, chairman of the S.C. Board of Law Examiners, which administers the test.
In both cases, Harrison said, he asked if the wills, trusts and estates section of the exam had an unusually high failure rate. A unusually high failure rate may be a sign of a faulty question, or faulty grading, he said.
He said that because he was not lobbying for a grade change for an individual but only bringing a questionable situation that involved a group of students to the attention of authorities, he did nothing that violated the Supreme Court rule that prohibits contact.
The rule says that an applicant “shall not, either directly or through an agent, contact any member or associate member of the Board of Law Examiners or any member of the Supreme Court regarding the questions on any section of the bar examination, grading procedures or an applicant’s answers.”
“I specifically said that if that test section failure rate was not abnormally high, I don’t see how anybody can have a complaint,” Harrison said.
Harrison said comments Catherine posted on the Internet site Facebook regarding the “hard work” she and her friends had done to get their grades changed had been misinterpreted.
“We worked really hard last week to make this happen and I’m just relieved that it’s all over and I can move on” Catherine Harrison had posted recently.
Harrison said his daughter was referring not to any improper lobbying efforts, but to vigorous telephone and e-mail efforts to contact other students to discover if an unusual number of students had failed the section.
Catherine Harrison did not respond to a message left at her job in the office of Circuit Judge James Barber.
Judge Burch said that after learning his daughter, Kendall, had a serious question about whether her bar exam failure was warranted, he contacted Hearn to ask about any appeal process.
Hearn told him there was no appeal process. Burch relayed that to his daughter. Burch said he told her she might talk with an attorney about an appeal, but said he took no other action.
Burch said he knew it was improper to contact the Supreme Court and deliberately did not do so out of ethical concerns.
“Even though I am a circuit judge, I have to be careful,” he said. “I tried to be careful, but do what little bit I could possibly do.”
HOW MANY PASSED?
Of the 552 students who took the test, 428, or 78 percent, initially passed, according to results posted Oct. 26 on the Supreme Court’s Web site. The 20 people affected by the Nov. 2 order represent 16 percent of the 124 applicants who flunked.
Test-takers included students from the USC and Charleston law schools. Precise breakdowns were not available.
Justices James Moore of Greenwood and Costa Pleicones of Columbia declined to comment.
The other two justices — John Waller of Marion and Don Beatty of Spartanburg — could not be reached.
John Crangle, the lawyer-director of Common Cause of South Carolina, a government watchdog group, said the court’s action “raises questions of favoritism.” But he added, “Knowing the members of the Supreme Court as I do ... I don’t think they would show favoritism.”
TAKING THE TEST
The S.C. bar exam is given on the last Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday in February and July of each year.
Those who passed the exam are scheduled to be sworn in as new lawyers Tuesday.
The first two days are devoted to essay questions, prepared by the National Conference of Bar Examiners, that focus on South Carolina law. The final day focuses on general law principles in multiple-choice questions.
The exam consists of seven sections. Students do not pass if they flunk more than one section.
State Rep. Thad Viers, R-Horry, who passed the July exam without Supreme Court intervention, said he didn’t have a problem with the section that was tossed.
“I’m not going to second-guess Chief Justice Toal,” he said. “We have a very ethical Supreme Court.”
To pass the bar exam, students must not only be familiar with hundreds of legal cases, but also be ready to apply case law, statutory law and common law to a hypothetical legal situation.
“It’s not memorization,” Viers said. “It’s analysis and applying all the facets of the law to a particular situation.”
Many children of prominent South Carolinians go to law school and take the bar exam.
Columbia Mayor Bob Coble said his daughter, Lucy, took the test last summer and passed it without the Supreme Court changing her grade.
“She worked very hard. She was on the Law Review and did very well.”
History has an odd way of repeating itself.
At 2:30 p.m. today in Columbia, more than 400 new lawyers will be sworn in as new members of the S.C. Bar.
The 448 new lawyers will include 20 people whose grades the high court changed Friday to pass from fail without much explanation.
Twenty years ago, a powerful state official whose daughter had flunked the S.C. Bar exam contacted the Supreme Court and managed to get her grade changed to pass.
Today’s 20 new lawyers whose grades were changed to pass include the daughters of two prominent state officials — state Rep. Jim Harrison, R-Richland, and Circuit Judge Paul Burch. Both men contacted either the Supreme Court or the Board of Law Examiners after learning their daughters had failed.
In 1987, it was then-Sen. Ed Saleeby’s daughter, Holly Saleeby, who flunked the bar. His complaint brought about a prompt re-grading that reversed her grade.
Saleeby’s quick swearing-in meant she avoided taking the grueling three-day exam again.
Catherine Harrison, daughter of Jim Harrison, the chairman of the influential House Judiciary Committee, and Kendall Burch, daughter of Circuit Judge Paul Burch, are among the 20 who originally failed last July’s bar exam. They can avoid re-taking the bar exam.
Another similarity between 2007 and 1987 is that Holly Saleeby was the law clerk of a circuit judge. Catherine Harrison and Kendall Burch are law clerks of circuit judges.
Despite the parallels, there are two key differences.
In 1987, then-Chief Justice “Bubba” Ness, now deceased, agreed to speak to the press and public to explain how he came to order that Saleeby’s failing bar test should be regraded, according to The State newspaper’s files.
Current Chief Justice Jean Toal won’t explain why Harrison, Burch and the other 18 failing examinees had their scores adjusted to pass, beyond a terse order published on the Supreme Court Web site Friday announcing the grade changes. It said a “scoring error” was responsible for the grade change but gave no details.
Another difference is that in 1987, there were no written rules in place concerning appeals of failing bar exam scores.
This year, although the Supreme Court has a firm rule disallowing appeals, it apparently disregarded that rule in changing the scores of the 20 examinees.