Thursday, June 15, 2006

Comity and Error

In Morrison v. Board of Law Examiners, No. 05-1257 (4th Cir. June 15, 2006) (PDF), the Fourth Circuit upheld the North Carolina Board of Bar Examiners' rule for obtaining comity admission to the practice of law. In doing so, it reversed summary judgment in the plaintiff's favor.

Many states have rules permitting attorneys to practice law in their state if the attorney has practiced law in another state for a certain number of years and the state in which he practiced will allow North Carolina lawyers the same courtesy. North Carolina's rule requires the attorney to have practiced for 4 out of the last 6 years in a comity state. Before applying for admission to practice in North Carolina, Morrison practiced law four out of the last six years in California. California does not have comity with North Carolina, so his application was denied.

Morrison filed suit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that both the requirement that he be admitted to practice in a State having comity with North Carolina, and the requirement that he have practiced for four of the past six years in that State, violate the United States Constitution, particularly the Privileges and Immunities Clause of Article IV, § 2; the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment; and the Privileges or Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The district court entered declaratory judgment that the Board’s Rule was unconstitutional as applied to Morrison because it requires comity applicants, who are admitted in a comity jurisdiction and have practiced law for four of the immediately preceding six years, to have practiced in a certain jurisdiction.

Upholding the rule established in Hawkins v. Moss, 503 F.2d 1171 (4th Cir. 1974), the Fourth Circuit reversed. "Reciprocal statutes or regulations, it has been uniformly upheld, are designed to meet a legitimate state goal and are related to a legitimate state interest. For this reason, they have been found invulnerable to constitutional attack on equal protection grounds." Hawkins, 503 F.2d at 1178. The court reasoned that the rule treats Morrison no differently than it treats North Carolina citizens and residents:
Morrison has been held to no more onerous requirements for admission to the North Carolina bar than any citizen of North Carolina. Simply because he practiced in California, a state not having reciprocity with North Carolina, for four of the last six years, does not mean that his constitutional rights have been violated. He does not meet the requirements of the North Carolina Board of Bar Examiners Rule .0502(3), a valid rule. Thus, he must seek an alternative method of gaining admission, such as taking the bar exam, as do all the other North Carolina lawyers similarly situated. We are of opinion and hold that Rule .0502(3) is valid.