A Long Campaign for Justice in Bar Admissions

A Long Campaign for Justice in Bar Admissions
June 19, 2019
Hartford, CT

UConn Law Professor Jon Bauer has argued for decades that asking applicants to the Connecticut bar about their mental health diagnoses was discriminatory and a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In the 1990s, his Civil Rights Clinic brought a lawsuit that resulted a federal court settlement requiring the bar examining committee to stop asking applicants whether they had ever been treated for any mental disorder or for substance abuse. But the bar application form continued to include questions that required applicants to disclose any recent treatment for depression, bipolar disorder, substance abuse or certain other disorders. Those who answered affirmatively had to release their medical records and often encountered delays in their admission to the bar.

Bauer published a frequently cited law review article on the topic and led an informal coalition that successfully lobbied the Connecticut Bar Examining Committee to incrementally narrow the questions in 2000, 2006 and 2014. But the application form continued to ask, “Do you currently have any condition or impairment (including, but not limited to, substance abuse, alcohol abuse, or a mental, emotional, or nervous disorder or condition) that in a material way affects your ability to practice law in a competent, ethical, and professional manner?,” and, if so, whether the applicant was receiving treatment that “reduced or ameliorated” its effects.

Bauer continued to advocate for the complete elimination of the questions. He pointed out that research showed no correlation between mental health diagnoses and lawyer discipline, and emphasized that the questions were counter-productive, because they deter many law students from seeking help for mental health problems.

He persisted until January 2019, when the examining committee voted to remove all references to mental health from its questions. Instead, the application form relies on questions that focus on the applicant’s past conduct and behavior, not on health conditions or treatment. And in April 2019, the bar examiners entered into a detailed agreement with the U.S. Justice Department to ensure that bar applicants will not be discriminated against because of a health diagnosis or treatment.  

On June 7, the first attorneys to submit the newly revised bar application were sworn in at the Connecticut Supreme Court. And on June 14, Bauer’s advocacy and tenacity were officially recognized by the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Connecticut, which presented him with a 2019 Law Enforcement Award at a ceremony in New Haven’s City Hall.

The award recognized particularly the assistance Bauer provided to the Civil Rights Unit’s investigation of the bar examination questions and procedures. “We owe Professor Bauer a great debt for his service, without which we may not have been able to achieve this outstanding result,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office announced.

“It was a long road, spanning 25 years, to bring bar admissions procedures into full compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act,” Bauer said. “It was a great honor being able to assist the U.S. Justice Department in reaching a resolution agreement with the Connecticut Bar Examining Committee that ensures fair and non-discriminatory admissions practices and makes Connecticut a model for other states.”

“We are so proud that our Professor Jon Bauer was recognized by the United States Attorney for contributions to the cause of justice,” said UConn Law Dean Timothy Fisher. “We and our students are truly fortunate to count him among our faculty.”