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Justice Dept. cites ADA, bars Louisiana from using mental health questions to limit admission to state bar

February 10, 2014
by Dennis Grantham, Editor-in-Chief
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The U.S. Department of Justice has informed Louisiana officials that they are subjecting law graduates who seek admission to the bar to unlawful inquiries concerning their mental health condition and treatment.

The Department of Justice issued the letter to Louisiana officials in response to complaints filed by the Bazelon Center on behalf of two Louisiana attorneys who were admitted to the state's bar on a "conditional" basis due to their mental health diagnosis and treatment. Like many other states, Louisiana requires law graduates applying for a license to practice law to disclose whether they have been diagnosed with or treated for a mental illness within the last five years.    

The letter said that the "conditional" admission violates Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act by needlessly screening out applicants with disabilities. Questions about an applicant's mental health diagnosis or treatment, unlike questions about conduct and performance, do not accurately gauge fitness to practice law, the DOJ letter said. Moreover, the letter finds the conditions the bar imposed were not tailored to perceived risks.

In the future, the DOJ letter advised Louisiana that it must not use questions about diagnosis or treatment unless the applicant raises his or her mental health conditions to explain past conduct that caused concern. The state must also evaluate all pending applications without regard to the applicant's responses to mental health questions, and identify any individuals who received conditional admission in the past so that they can be admitted unconditionally to the bar. 

"People with disabilities, including mental health diagnoses, must be assessed based on their abilities, not their medical conditions," stated Samuel Bagenstos, a University of Michigan law professor and disability law expert. 

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