COLUMBIA, S.C. (WBTW) — The South Carolina Supreme Court took a self-proclaimed “unusual step” Wednesday in publishing an opinion warning law students and bar applicants about leaving criminal backgrounds off their applications to practice in the state.
The move comes after the South Carolina Supreme Court’s Office of Bar Admissions has seen an influx in prospective lawyers omitting criminal charges or traffic violations on their applications, according to the ruling. The warning was issued in a public opinion by the court, setting it as a precedent.
The case comes from an unnamed applicant, which the court hopes to use as an example, denying his license to practice law until November — one year from when the South Carolina Committee on Character and Fitness recommended that he “possesses the requisite character and fitness to practice law.”
The state supreme court agreed with the decision, but was “troubled by the Applicant’s lack of candor in his law school application and his subsequent misrepresentations on social media.”
“Our goal in doing so is to warn potential law students, law schools, and bar applicants of the serious consequences of nondisclosure and to encourage law school applicants to completely and fully disclose all required information at the time their applicants are first submitted,” the opinion reads. “Now that applicants will have the benefit of this published decision, we caution that future nondisclosures and misleading statements will not be viewed with any degree of leniency and may result in this Court’s outright denial of admission to practice law.”
Bar admission information isn’t public, and the committee’s decisions aren’t published. However, the court issued its ruling because applicants are assuming that orders telling them to disclose information or face consequences are “empty threats,” according to the published opinion.
“Despite warnings in law school of the consequences of nondisclosure, too many applicants never amend, or never fully amend, their law school applicants to include all relevant matters,” the opinion reads., continuing later to say that “Often, the undisclosed conduct itself would not necessarily have disqualified an applicant from admission to law school, but false and misleading nondisclosures most certainly impact this Court’s evaluation of an applicant’s character and fitness to practice law.”
When confronted, applicants give “a familiar refrain of unpersuasive excuses,” according to the ruling.
The opinion comes from the case in which a man left out information on his application about his arrests as a minor, being punished for a prank at his fraternity and a traffic ticket.
After being admitted to law school, the man disclosed in 2019 that he’d been charged with being a minor in possession of alcohol after being arrested in high school. The criminal case was dismissed, but his high school required him to do 60 hours of community service. The man reportedly said that he had forgotten about the charge.
In 2020, he admitted to being charged with hindering police when he was 16, telling the application committee that he had a “minor altercation” after attending a party where there was underage drinking. He said he ran from the house when police arrived and then his parents drove him to the police station when they found out. He was ordered to do 60 hours of community service, and the ticket was expunged.
However, the police report from the incident had a different narrative, according to the court decision. The man was stopped in a vehicle after being seen at a home known for hosting underage parties, and the man ran away from police while an officer was administering field sobriety tests to the other people in the car. The man told the application committee that he didn’t want to be arrested because he was being recruited to play football after he graduated from high school.
Another incident left off his applications was when he was involved in a fraternity prank as an undergraduate where he took bikes from a residence hall and rode them to his fraternity house. He was caught, the fraternity was reprimanded and the group was forced to do community service.
He also left off a traffic ticket he got in 2012 for running a stop sign, stating that he had “no clue” where the ticket came from and that he had a “vague” recollection of getting a warning. He appeared in court and paid a $120 fine for the ticket. The man said he disclosed the ticket after seeing his driving application while filling out his bar admission application.
The man claimed he thought he didn’t have to list his underage arrests because the charges were expunged. However, the applications “unambiguously” noted that even expunged offenses have to be listed, and provided reminders about it, according to the ruling.
The South Carolina Supreme Court also expressed concern in the published opinion about how the applicant changed his LinkedIn profile to show that he was an associate attorney at the law firm he worked at, despite only being a law clerk while he was waiting for the application committee to finish their investigation for his license. The man said that he was excited he passed the exam and updated it. The court said that changing the profile before he was allowed to become a lawyer could throw his honesty into question.
Although the omissions were minor and happened when he was young, the court said that leaving them off his applications “was both more recent and more troubling.”
The man admitted the misconduct, took full responsibility and “appeared genuinely contrite.” He also submitted affidavits from employees at the law firm he works at who continued to endorse him.