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Weather Delivers Injustice to Takers of the Bar Exam

In Pasadena, storm flooding was a hazard to laptop users, hence a delay and scoring glitch.

By Arlene Martinez and Kristina Sauerwein
Times Staff Writers

February 27, 2004

You could say that an act of God provoked chaos Thursday at the Pasadena Convention Center, where storm flooding delayed administration of the California bar exam and threw a kink into how it would be graded.

Or, if you're one of the 700 law graduates there, about to take the test of your life, you could argue that the turmoil caused emotional distress, negative career repercussions, future financial losses and for at least one bodily harm (albeit not serious).

In other words, the fiasco has the makings of a legal action.

"The ramifications of this are substantial," said Marjan J. Rabbi, 29, exhausted, angry and suffering from a sore finger, which was zapped when four hours later than scheduled she tried to plug in her laptop in the soggy exam room. "Someone should bring a class-action lawsuit."

Thursday was the third and final day of the tough, often-feared bar exam, which takers must pass before they can practice law in California.

Test takers arrived early for the 9 a.m. exam, many dressed for comfort and endurance in sweats, jeans and flip-flops.

Officials delayed the test, declaring the water that had seeped into the building and dampened floors, an electrocution hazard to laptop users. They told the barristers-to-be that because time was lost, a portion of the day's test would not be given and therefore would not be included in the final score.

Some, believing that portion of the test played to their strengths, were in tears. People paced, cursed and yelled into cellphones about the injustice. They stood in silence, gesticulated to no one in particular, sat on the steps, heads hung low.

"The bar is stressful enough under the very best of circumstances," said law school graduate Scott Norwood, 47.

By 11:30 a.m., organizers began scrambling to start the morning portion of the exam before test takers at one of the state's six other testing sites got out for their noon lunch break, when information sharing would be possible.

"I'm certain there will be some that say it affected their performance, and we will run analysis to see if that's the case," said Jerome Braun, senior executive for admissions for the State Bar of California. "We're going to treat everybody fairly and equitably. Our first consideration is safety of the people taking the test."

Statewide, about 4,800 people took the exam, which is administered twice a year.

Thursday's glitch wasn't the first time that special accommodations were made for the California bar. In 1989, an earthquake in Pomona forced officials to omit a portion of the exam.

And in 1992, scores were reconfigured after a man suffered a seizure during the test.

"It's a little bit of a letdown, but part of being an attorney is dealing with unexpected situations," said test taker Absalom Gomez, 33. "If you can't handle it, you probably shouldn't be here."