The Delaware Bar Examination -- which one must pass to practice law in
the state -- has a reputation of being one of the toughest in America.
Statistics support that notion. Last year only 57 percent of aspiring attorneys passed the Delaware exam, a lower figure than all but two states, California and New Hampshire.
The test proved to be a hurdle for Democratic Attorney General candidate Beau Biden, who failed three times between 1994 and 1996 before passing in 2001. Biden had passed the Maryland exam on his first try in 1996.
His opponent, Republican Ferris Wharton, passed Delaware’s exam on his first attempt in 1978.
In today’s Internet-fueled political environment, Biden’s travails have become fodder for the rumor mill and blogosphere.
But does it matter?
Experts and supporters of both candidates said no, that Biden’s old exam results have no bearing on his ability to run the Delaware Department of Justice.
Biden’s performance on the exam came to The News Journal’s attention in recent days, when a poster on the paper’s online Story Chat made references to the failures. “Beau Biden couldn't even pass the bar exam without multiple tries - I certainly don't want to depend on HIS leadership when my family or I need justice,’’ wrote the poster with the code name “CitizenD.’’ The newspaper could not learn the poster’s identity.
Under Delaware law, the attorney general doesn’t even have to be an attorney.
Experts say that while multiple failures might raise questions about someone’s aptitude, bar exams are high-pressure tests that can confound someone with a sharp legal mind and skills. Delaware attorneys on both sides of the race agree.
Delaware is one of 30 states that has no limit on how many times someone can take the exam.
“I’ve seen many good prosecutors who have failed the bar on a couple of occasions,’’ said Wilmington attorney Jeffrey K. Martin, a Republican supporter of Wharton. “I really don’t think it’s a reflection of one’s legal abilities. ... Much of it is pure cramming and rote memory.’’
Biden, who provided the newspaper with details of his failures when asked last week, said his experience with the exam has proven to be a plus.
“Never giving up matters,’’ Biden said. “As my granddad used to say, ‘The measure of success is not how many times you get knocked down but how many times you get up.’ I got up and did it. You keep plugging away.’’
Wharton and his campaign staffers said they had heard stories about Biden’s failures but did not know details until a reporter told them last week.
“I’m surprised he sat for the exam that many times,’’ said Wharton, who like his aides and state GOP leaders would not comment further.
Wharton’s camp has made Biden’s relative inexperience an issue. Wharton, 54, has been a state and federal prosecutor for 25 years. Biden. 37, was a federal prosecutor in Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia before he began practicing in Delaware in 2002.
Erica Moeser, president of the National Conference of Bar Examiners, doubted Delaware voters would be concerned with a candidate’s previous test failures.
“It would surprise me if amongst the issues that are surely of importance,’’ Moeser said, “that this one would be at the top of the heap or even in the top 100.’’
Micah J. Yarborough, a Widener University law school professor who runs the Delaware Bar Review course, said some people might question Biden’s aptitude, as was the case with the late John F. Kennedy Jr. when he failed the New York exam twice before passing.
For a voter, “it would be reasonable to say, ‘Oh, it took this person three times to take the bar as opposed to the other candidate who passed it the first time,’’’ Yarborough said. “But I don’t necessarily equate that with leadership ability. It might matter but it wouldn’t be something that most people would say would be a deciding factor.’’