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College Wants Law on Its Side

Judge issues a temporary ruling in Western State's bid to keep national accreditation. Fullerton school says the ABA is hostile to for-profits.

By Jeff Gottlieb
Times Staff Writer

February 5, 2004

A federal judge offered a tentative ruling Wednesday that would temporarily prevent the American Bar Assn. from stripping an Orange County law school of its national accreditation, but then seemed to have doubts.

U.S. District Judge Gary L. Taylor, who has a law degree from UCLA, must rule on the temporary injunction by Friday. On Monday, the ABA's 538-member House of Delegates, meeting in San Antonio, is expected to vote on a recommendation to pull the accreditation of Western State University College of Law in Fullerton.

Losing the accreditation would be a huge blow to the for-profit school's prestige and its recruiting efforts. ABA approval, the highest designation a law school can receive, allows its graduates to take the bar exam anywhere in the country and signifies quality to potential employers.

Don Daucher, Western State's attorney, law degree from Duke, has argued that the ABA is violating its own rules in the dispute and is hostile toward for-profit schools.

In his tentative ruling, which he handed to attorneys before the hearing in his Santa Ana courtroom, Taylor agreed with some of Daucher's arguments. He said the deposition of ABA official John Sebert "casts serious doubt on the reasonableness of the ABA's interpretation of its rules. Mr. Sebert's testimony further indicates the ABA may be arbitrarily changing its rules to fit the circumstances of the case."

Taylor told the court, which was overflowing with Western State students, that the school could suffer "irreparable harm" if it loses its accreditation.

By the end of the nearly two-hour hearing, though, Taylor referred to his decision as talking points and said both sides had brought up issues that went beyond the tentative ruling.

Darryl DePriest, the ABA's general counsel, who attended Harvard law, said he has given up trying to read judges. "It's always daunting when a judge hands out a tentative ruling against your position," he said.

Western received the ABA's provisional accreditation in 1998, the first step toward gaining full approval, which usually comes within five years. Since then, the ABA has visited Western State several times but expressed concern over the low number of students passing the bar, low Law School Aptitude Test scores and the high number of dropouts.

Western State admits that it has had problems but says that progress has been made since Pittsburgh-based Education Management Corp. bought it two years ago. In July 2002, 44% of Western State's graduates who took the bar for the first time passed, compared with 42% at Whittier Law School and 71% at Chapman University, Orange County's two other ABA-accredited schools.

The pass rate for all applicants who took the California bar for the first time that year was 64.5%. UCLA had the highest pass rate, with 93%.

The ABA's Section on Legal Education and Admission to the Bar, made up of 24 lawyers, judges, deans and professors, has recommended that Western State lose its provisional accreditation.

Unless Taylor issues an injunction temporarily stopping the process, the House of Delegates is expected to place the question on its agenda. The delegates could ratify the recommendation or vote against it and send it back to the legal education section for reconsideration. The legal education section makes the final decision.

A third option would put off a decision until the delegates' next meeting, in August, said Nancy Slonim, an ABA spokeswoman.

In his tentative ruling, Taylor said there was a strong likelihood that the case for a permanent injunction, which would prevent the ABA from pulling the accreditation until it has followed federal law and its own rules, would succeed when it went to trial.

The ABA has given full accreditation to 181 schools and provisional approval to five. Only two are for-profit: Western and Florida Coastal. The ABA signed a consent decree in 1996 with the U.S. Justice Department agreeing not to prevent for-profits from receiving accreditation.