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LAW STUDENTS CIVIL RIGHTS RESEARCH COUNCIL v. WADMOND ET AL.

decided: February 23, 1971.

LAW STUDENTS CIVIL RIGHTS RESEARCH COUNCIL, INC., ET AL
v.
WADMOND ET AL.



APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK.

Stewart, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Burger, C. J., and Harlan, White, and Blackmun, JJ., joined. Harlan, J., filed a concurring opinion, ante, p. 34. Black, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Douglas, J., joined, post, p. 174. Marshall, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Brennan, J., joined, post, p. 185.

Author: Stewart

[ 401 U.S. Page 156]

 MR. JUSTICE STEWART delivered the opinion of the Court.

An applicant for admission to the Bar of New York must be a citizen of the United States, have lived in the State for at least six months, and pass a written examination conducted by the State Board of Law Examiners. In addition, New York requires that the Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court in the judicial department where an applicant resides must "be satisfied that such person possesses the character and general fitness requisite for an attorney and counselor-at-law." New York Judiciary Law § 90, subd. 1, par. a (1968).*fn1 To carry out this provision, the New York Civil Practice Law and Rules require the appointment, in each of the four Judicial Departments into which the Supreme Court is divided, of a Committee or Committees on Character and Fitness.*fn2 Section 528.1 of the Rules of the New York Court of Appeals for the Admission of Attorneys and Counselors-at-Law requires that the character and general fitness specified in Judiciary Law § 90 "must be shown by the affidavits of two reputable persons residing in the city or county in which [the applicant] resides, one of whom must be a practicing attorney of the Supreme Court of this State."*fn3 The Committees also require

[ 401 U.S. Page 157]

     the applicant himself to fill out a questionnaire.*fn4 After receipt of the affidavits and questionnaire, the Committees conduct a personal interview with each applicant. As a final step before actual admission to the Bar, an applicant must take an oath that he will support the Constitutions of the United States and of the State of New York.*fn5

This case involves a broad attack, primarily on First Amendment vagueness and overbreadth grounds, upon this system for screening applicants for admission to the New York Bar. The appellants, plaintiffs in the trial court, are organizations and individuals claiming to represent a class of law students and law graduates similarly situated, seeking or planning to seek admission to practice law in New York. They commenced two separate actions for declaratory and injunctive relief in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, naming as defendants two Committees on Character and Fitness and their members and two Appellate Divisions and their judges.*fn6 The complaints attacked the statutes, rules, and screening procedures as invalid on their face or as applied in the First and Second Departments. A three-judge court was convened and consolidated the two suits.

In a thorough opinion, the court considered the appellants' claims and found certain items on the questionnaires as they then stood to be so vague, overbroad, and intrusive upon applicants' private lives as to be of doubtful constitutional validity.*fn7 It granted the partial

[ 401 U.S. Page 158]

     relief indicated by these findings, approving or further amending the revised questions submitted by the appellees to conform to its opinion.*fn8 It upheld the statutes and rules as valid on their face and, with the exceptions noted, sustained the validity of New York's system. This appeal followed, and we noted probable jurisdiction. 396 U.S. 999.*fn9

We note at the outset that no person involved in this case has been refused admission to the New York Bar. Indeed, the appellants point to no case in which they claim any applicant has ever been unjustifiably denied permission to practice law in New York State under these or earlier statutes, rules, or procedures. The basic thrust of the appellants' attack is, rather, that New

[ 401 U.S. Page 159]

     York's system by its very existence works a "chilling effect" upon the free exercise of the rights of speech and association of students who must anticipate having to meet its requirements.

I

The three-judge District Court, although divided on other questions, was unanimous in finding no constitutional infirmity in New York's statutory requirement that applicants for admission to its Bar must possess "the character and general fitness requisite for an attorney and counselor-at-law."*fn10 We have no difficulty in affirming this holding. See Konigsberg v. State Bar, 366 U.S. 36, 40-41; Schware v. Board of Bar Examiners, 353 U.S. 232, 247 (Frankfurter, J., concurring). Long usage in New York and elsewhere has given well-defined contours to this requirement, which the appellees have construed narrowly as encompassing no more than "dishonorable conduct relevant to the legal profession," see 299 F.Supp., at 144 n. 20 (separate opinion of Motley, J.); see also Schware v. Board of Bar Examiners, supra, at 247 (Frankfurter, J., concurring). The few reported cases in which bar admission has been denied on character grounds in New York all appear to have involved instances of misconduct clearly inconsistent with the standards of a lawyer's calling.*fn11

[ 401 U.S. Page 160]

     This Court itself requires of applicants for admission to practice before it that "their private and professional characters shall appear to be good."*fn12 Every State, plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands, requires some similar qualification.*fn13

But, the appellants contend, even though the statutory standard may be constitutionally valid, the methods used by the Committees to satisfy themselves that applicants meet that standard are not. Specifically, the appellants object to the terms of the third-party affidavits attesting to an applicant's good moral character. During this litigation, the appellees revised the affidavit forms in several respects. Whatever may have been said of the affidavits formerly used, we can find nothing in the present forms remotely vulnerable to constitutional attack. In the Second Department, for example, an affiant is asked to state whether he has visited the applicant's home and, if so, how often. We think it borders on the frivolous to say that such an inquiry offends the applicant's "right to privacy protected by the First, Fourth, Ninth, and Fourteenth Amendments." It is the applicant who selects the two people who will sign affidavits on his behalf, and the Committees may reasonably inquire as to the nature and extent of an affiant's actual acquaintance with the applicant.*fn14

[ 401 U.S. Page 161]

     II

As stated at the outset of this opinion, New York has further standards of eligibility for admission to its Bar. An applicant must be a United States citizen and a New York resident of six months' standing. And before he may be finally admitted to practice, an applicant must swear (or affirm) that he will support the Constitutions of the United States and of the State of New York. Reflecting these requirements, Rule 9406 of the New York Civil Practice Law and Rules directs the Committees on Character and Fitness not to certify an applicant for admission "unless he shall furnish satisfactory proof to the effect" that he is a citizen of the United States, has resided in New York for at least six months, has complied with the applicable statutes and rules, and "believes in the form of the government of the United States and is loyal to such government."

The appellants do not take issue with the citizenship and minimum-residence requirements, nor with the items on the questionnaires for applicants dealing with these requirements. Their constitutional attack is mounted against the requirement of belief "in the form of" and loyalty to the Government of the United States, and upon those parts of the questionnaires directed thereto.

We do not understand the appellants to question the constitutionality of the actual oath an applicant must take before admission to practice. In any event, there can be no doubt of its validity. It merely requires an applicant to swear or affirm that he will "support the constitution of the United States" as well as that of the State of New York. See Knight v. Board of Regents, 269 F.Supp. 339, aff'd per curiam, 390 U.S. 36; Hosack v. Smiley, 276 F.Supp. 876, aff'd per curiam, 390 U.S. 744;

[ 401 U.S. Page 162]

     v. B ullitt, supra, at 375; Kingsley International Pictures Corp. v. Regents of the University, 360 U.S. 684, 688; Speiser v. Randall, supra, at 519; Terminiello v. Chicago, 337 U.S. 1, 5-6. If they are viewed as state administrative agencies charged with enforcement and construction of the Rule, their view is at least entitled to "respectful consideration," Fox v. Standard Oil Co., 294 U.S. 87, 96 (Cardozo, J.), and we see no reason not to accept their interpretation in this case.

The appellees have made it abundantly clear that their construction of the Rule is both extremely narrow and fully cognizant of protected constitutional freedoms.*fn16 There are three key elements to this construction. First, the Rule places upon applicants no burden of proof.*fn17 Second, "the form of the government of the United States" and the "government" refer solely to the Constitution, which is all that the oath mentions. Third, "belief" and "loyalty" mean no more than willingness to take the constitutional oath and ability to do so in good faith.

Accepting this construction, we find no constitutional invalidity in Rule 9406. There is "no showing of an intent to penalize political beliefs." Konigsberg v. State Bar, 366 U.S., at 54. At the most, the Rule as authoritatively interpreted by the appellees performs only the

[ 401 U.S. Page 164]

     function of ascertaining that an applicant is not one who "swears to an oath pro forma while declaring or manifesting his disagreement with or indifference to the oath." Bond v. Floyd, 385 U.S. 116, 132.

III

As this case comes to us from the three-judge panel, the questionnaire applicants are asked to complete contains only two numbered questions reflecting the disputed provision of Rule 9406.*fn18 They are as follows:

"26. (a) Have you ever organized or helped to organize or become a member of any organization or group of persons which, during the period of your membership or association, you knew was advocating or teaching that the government of the United States or any state or any political subdivision thereof should be overthrown or overturned by force, violence or any unlawful means? ///--- If your answer is in the affirmative, state the facts below.

[ 401 U.S. Page 165]

     "(b) If your answer to (a) is in the affirmative, did you, during the period of such membership or association, have the specific intent to further the aims of such organization or group of persons to overthrow or overturn the government of the United States or any state or any political subdivision thereof by force, violence or any unlawful means?

"27. (a) Is there any reason why you cannot take and subscribe to an oath or affirmation that you will support the constitutions of the United States and of the State of New York? If there is, please explain.

"(b) Can you conscientiously, and do you, affirm that you are, without any mental reservation, loyal to and ready to support the Constitution of the United States?" ////--.

In dealing with these questions, we emphasize again that there has been no showing that any applicant for admission to the New York Bar has been denied admission either because of his answers to these or any similar questions, or because of his refusal to answer them. Necessarily, therefore, we must consider the validity of the questions only on their face, in light of Rule 9406 as construed by the agencies entrusted with its administration.

Question 26 is precisely tailored to conform to the relevant decisions of this Court. Our cases establish that inquiry into associations of the kind referred to is permissible under the limitations carefully observed here. We have held that knowing membership in an organization advocating the overthrow of the Government by force or violence, on the part of one sharing the specific intent to further the organization's illegal goals, may be made criminally punishable. Scales v. United States, 367 U.S. 203, 228-230. It is also well settled that Bar examiners may ask about Communist

[ 401 U.S. Page 166]

     affiliations as a preliminary to further inquiry into the nature of the association and may exclude an applicant for refusal to answer. Konigsberg v. State Bar, 366 U.S., at 46-47. See also, e. g., United States v. Robel, 389 U.S. 258; Keyishian v. Board of Regents, 385 U.S. 589; Elfbrandt v. Russell, 384 U.S. 11; Beilan v. Board of Public Education, 357 U.S. 399; Garner v. Board of Public Works, 341 U.S. 716.*fn19 Surely a State is constitutionally entitled to make such an inquiry of an applicant for admission to a profession dedicated to the peaceful and reasoned settlement of disputes between men, and between a man and his government. The very Constitution that the appellants invoke stands as a living embodiment of that ideal.

As to Question 27, there can hardly be doubt of its constitutional validity in light of our earlier discussion of Rule 9406 and the appellees' construction of that Rule. The question is simply supportive of the appellees' task of ascertaining the good faith with which an applicant can take the constitutional oath. Indeed, the "without any mental reservation" language of part (b) is the same phrase that appears in the oath required of all federal uniformed and civil service personnel. 5 U. S. C. § 3331 (1964 ed., Supp. V). New York's question, however, is less demanding than the federal oath. Taking the oath is a requisite for federal employment, but there is no indication that a New York Bar applicant would not be given the opportunity to explain any "mental reservation" and still gain admission to the Bar.

[ 401 U.S. Page 167]

     IV

Finally, there emerges from the appellants' briefs and oral argument a more fundamental claim than any to which we have thus far adverted. They suggest that, whatever the facial validity of the various details of a screening system such as New York's, there inheres in such a system so constant a threat to applicants that constitutional deprivations will be inevitable. The implication of this argument is that no screening would be constitutionally permissible beyond academic examination and extremely minimal checking for serious, concrete character deficiencies. The principal means of policing the Bar would then be the deterrent and punitive effects of such post-admission sanctions as contempt, disbarrment, malpractice suits, and criminal prosecutions.

Such an approach might be wise policy, but decisions based on policy alone are not for us to make. We have before us a State whose agents have evidently been scrupulous in the use of the powers that the appellants attack, and who have shown every willingness to keep their investigations within constitutionally permissible limits. We are not persuaded that careful administration of such a system as New York's need result in chilling effects upon the exercise of constitutional freedoms. Consequently, the choice between systems like New York's and approaches like that urged by the appellants rests with the legislatures and other policymaking bodies of the individual States. New York has made its choice. To disturb it would be beyond the power of this Court.

The judgment is

Affirmed.

[For concurring opinion of MR. JUSTICE HARLAN, see ante, p. 34.]

[ 401 U.S. Page 168]

     APPENDIX TO OPINION OF THE COURT

New York Judiciary Law (1968): Article 4 -- Appellate Division.

§ 90. Admission to and removal from practice by appellate division; character committees

1. a. Upon the state board of law examiners certifying that a person has passed the required examination, or that the examination has been dispensed with, the appellate division of the supreme court in the department to which such person shall have been certified by the state board of law examiners, if it shall be satisfied that such person possesses the character and general fitness requisite for an attorney and counselor-at-law, shall admit him to practice as such attorney and counselor-at-law in all the courts of this state, provided that he has in all respects complied with the rules of the court of appeals and the rules of the appellate divisions relating to the admission of attorneys.

New York Civil Practice Law and Rules (1963): Article 94 -- Admission to Practice.

Rule 9401. Committee

The appellate division in each judicial department shall appoint a committee of not less than three practicing lawyers for each judicial district within the department, for the purpose of investigating the character and fitness of every applicant for admission to practice as an attorney and counselor at law in the courts of this state. Each member of such committee shall serve until his death, resignation or the appointment of his successor. A lawyer who has been or who shall be appointed a member of the committee for one district may be appointed a member of the committee for another district within the same department.

[ 401 U.S. Page 169]

     Rule 9404. Certificate of character and fitness

Unless otherwise ordered by the appellate division, no person shall be admitted to practice without a certificate from the proper committee that it has carefully investigated the character and fitness of the applicant and that, in such respects, he is entitled to admission. To enable the committee to make such investigation the committee, subject to the approval of the justices of the appellate division, is authorized to prescribe and from time to time to amend a form of statement or questionnaire on which the applicant shall set forth in his usual handwriting all the information and data required by the committee and the appellate division justices, including specifically his present and past places of actual residence, listing the street and number, if any, and the period of time he resided at each place.

Rule 9406. Proof

No person shall receive said certificate from any committee and no person shall be admitted to practice as an attorney and counselor at law in the courts of this state, unless he shall furnish satisfactory proof to the effect:

1. that he believes in the form of the government of the United States and is loyal to such government;

2. that he is a citizen of the United States;

3. that he has been an actual resident of the state of New York for six months prior to the filing of his application for admission to practice; and

4. that he has complied with all the requirements of this rule and with all the requirements of the applicable statutes of this state, the applicable rules of the court of appeals and the applicable rules of the appellate division in which his application is pending, relating to the admission to practice as an attorney and counselor at law.

[ 401 U.S. Page 170]

     New York Judiciary Law Appendix (Supp. 1970): Rules of the Court of Appeals for the Admission of Attorneys and Counselors-at-Law.

PART 528 -- PROOF OF MORAL ...


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