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Law grads concerned over in-person Alabama bar exams amid COVID-19 surge

Test-takers in Alabama are required to sign a waiver noting that they’re taking the test at their own risk.

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Eddie Burkhalter

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Recent law school graduates in Alabama say they’re concerned they have to take the state’s bar exam in person later this month, or during an alternate exam session set for September, even as the state endures surging COVID-19 cases and a pandemic that appears to be nowhere near under control.

For now, the state’s two-day bar exam is set for July 18 and 19 at the BJCC convention center in Birmingham, and, as of last week, the Alabama Supreme Court approved an optional alternative session of Sept. 30 and Oct. 1. 

The Alabama State Bar is taking some safety precautions for test days, including temperature checks, staggered entry times, social distancing and a requirement to wear masks while entering and exiting the building, but with the uncertainty of whether the virus will still be surging across the state in September, and the danger of contracting coronavirus during the lengthy two-day exam, some recent graduates for weeks have been calling for the state bar and the state Supreme Court to offer other options. 

Test-takers in Alabama are also required to sign a waiver noting that they’re taking the test at their own risk. By signing the waiver, they forgo the ability to sue the Alabama State Bar or the Alabama Board of Bar Examiners in the event that they contract coronavirus. 

“I acknowledge the contagious nature of COVID-19 and voluntarily assume the risk that I may be exposed to or infected by COVID-19 by attending the July 2020 Alabama Bar examination or the September 2020 Alabama Bar examination,” the waiver reads. “And that such exposure or infection may result in personal injury, illness, personal disability, and death.” 

And it isn’t just the recent graduates who are concerned. In a tweet on July 11, Dr. Michael Saag, renowned UAB infectious disease expert and HIV-Aids researcher, expressed concern over an in-person bar exam in Alabama. 

“I don’t see how this can be done safely with the degree of SARS-CoV-2 transmission going on in our community right now,” Saag said in the tweet. 

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Alabama is one of 20 states that are still moving forward with in-person bar exams, according to The Washington Post

A white paper published on March 22 by the Center for Interdisciplinary Law and Policy Studies at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law noted that COVID-19 had disrupted public life and that “jurisdictions will not be able to administer the July 2020 bar exam in the usual manner.” 

“Even if some of the most rigorous restrictions have been lifted by July 28, prohibitions on large gatherings are likely to remain. Attempting to administer the bar exam to hundreds of test takers in a single room would endanger the test takers, staff administering the exam, and the public health,” researchers wrote in the study. 

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The study offered six options for state bars to make changes to ensure the safety of test-takers and staff, which include postponing exams, administering them online, giving exams in small groups, issuing emergency diploma privilege (which allows graduates of law schools to practice without taking a bar exam), adopting an emergency diploma privilege-plus (whereby state bars can add additional educational requirements to practice without taking the exam) and creating a supervisory practice program, where recent graduates practice under a licensed attorney.

“A lot of nervous people getting ready to take the bar exam,” said Birmingham lawyer and executive director of the Alabama State Bar, Phillip McCallum, speaking to APR on July 10. 

McCallum said the Alabama Supreme Court is the ruling authority over the state bar, and that “it’s their decision, and their decision has been made for many, many months, and that is the bar exam is proceeding as expected.” 

McCallum said that during the week prior, several states began delaying state bar exams amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which set off questions among recent law school graduates about what might happen in Alabama, he said. 

“Anything can happen,” McCallum said. “The pandemic can continue to escalate and we can somehow get canceled. I mean anything, anything can happen.”

But the decision would be the Supreme Court’s to make, he said. 

McCallum told APR on July 10 that the state bar had discussed with the Supreme Court a potential alternative testing date, and that he expected an order from the court on that in the coming days. 

The state Supreme Court issued that order on July 12, which directed the July 28-29 testing session to remain, but gave the alternate date of Sept. 30-Oct. 1. 

Among the safety precautions established by the state bar are that masks be worn entering and exiting the BJCC, but that examinees can take their masks off during the timed portion of the exam, although “the Alabama State Bar strongly encourages the wearing of a mask/face covering at all times.” 

Jefferson County’s health order stipulates masks be worn at all times in public places, but exempts private meetings, which the state bar exam falls into. 

“I do know I graduated with a few people who have very serious health conditions, and there’s a real chance that they could end up on a ventilator,” a recent law school graduate in Alabama told APR last week. 

He and several other recent law school graduates who contacted APR in recent days asked not to be named, as there’s a fear that voicing complaints over the matter could lead to a bad outcome in the character and fitness requirements graduates must pass for admission to the bar. 

The recent graduate in Alabama said many are asking for online bar exams, and understand that although areas in the state do not have broadband internet access, it’s the best option to take the exam safely and get to work quickly. Alabama isn’t likely to allow for diploma privilege, he said, but he described it as the second-best option.  

“I think the online version would be the best of both worlds, because the Board of Law Examiners has a duty to protect the public from people who are not qualified to be attorneys,” he said. 

The worst option, he said, would be to delay the tests for many months. Law school graduates pay anywhere between $1,500 to $2,500 to take seven-week preparatory classes in the leadup to a bar exam, he said, and he and many others were already doing so.

Postponing the test would mean restarting those classes from the beginning, he said. 

“Way back in the spring, the State Bar and the court were at least aware of different options, because states around us have started changing their plans to sort of accommodate,” he said.  “And it seems like every step of the way the state bar, the Board of Law Examiners, the court, hasn’t really done anything to improve the situation.” 

Plans call for temperatures to be checked upon entry to the BJCC, but the graduates noted that many people with COVID-19 are asymptomatic and can still spread the virus. 

Three months before Alabama’s Supreme Court did so, the Georgia Supreme Court on April 17 delayed the state’s bar exam, pushing it back from July 28-29 to Sept. 9-10, and the Supreme Court of Florida on July 1 agreed to move the state’s bar exams online after weeks of pleas from law students, according to the Miami Herald.

“By pushing forward with an in-person exam this July, the State Bar and Supreme Court have shown a concerning lack of interest in the wellbeing of those of us who are trying to enter the profession,” the recent graduate wrote to APR in a message following the state’s Supreme Court’s July 12 ruling. “The optional September 30-October 1 exam is thinly reasoned as all modeling indicates COVID-19 will be just as bad, if not worse, at that time. The State Bar and the Court are hurting us examinees, but they’re also hurting themselves by threatening the public’s health and by engendering resentment among their newest members.”

Many recent law school graduates come from more affluent homes, the recent grad said, but many are also single parents with little income who have surmounted great obstacles to put themselves through law school while working jobs and raising children. 

While students are told over and over that they’ll pass the bar, and that it’s a test on minimum competency, he said, “I feel like this year it can’t test minimum competency, because I feel like this is testing access to resources.” 

“Who has access to money to last them a few extra weeks? Who has access to childcare?” he said. 

Alabama on Wednesday saw the largest increase to the state’s COVID-19 death toll in a single day, with 47 deaths reported — and just a day after the increasing death toll set its previous one-day record Tuesday. 

Nearly 20 percent of the state’s total COVID-19 death toll of 1,183 has been reported in the last two weeks. 

State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris in a press conference Wednesday said more than 2,000 people across the state were currently hospitalized for confirmed or suspected coronavirus — and about 30 hospitals statewide had very limited intensive care bed availability.

The state on Wednesday saw 1,784 new coronavirus cases, which was the third highest single-day increase of cases since the start of the pandemic. The other two record-high single days were set within the last week.

Eddie Burkhalter is a reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or reach him via Twitter.

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Lilly Ledbetter speaks about her friendship with Ginsburg

Micah Danney

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Lilly Ledbetter spoke during a virtual campaign event with Sen. Doug Jones on Sept. 21.

When anti-pay-discrimination icon and activist Lilly Ledbetter started receiving mail from late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Ledbetter’s attorney told her to save the envelopes. That’s how unusual it is to get personal mail from a member of the nation’s highest court.

Ledbetter, 82, of Jacksonville, Alabama, shared her memories of her contact with Ginsburg over the last decade during a Facebook live event hosted by Sen. Doug Jones on Monday.

Ginsburg famously read her dissent from the bench, a rare occurrence, in the Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. decision in 2007. The court ruled 5-4 to affirm a lower court’s decision that Ledbetter was not owed damages for pay discrimination because her suit was not filed within 180 days of the setting of the policy that led to her paychecks being less than those of her male colleagues. 

Ledbetter said that Ginsburg “gave me the dignity” of publicly affirming the righteousness of Ledbetter’s case, demonstrating an attention to the details of the suit.

Ginsburg challenged Congress to take action to prevent similar plaintiffs from being denied compensation due to a statute of limitations that can run out before an employee discovers they are being discriminated against. 

The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 was passed by Congress with broad bipartisan support and signed into law by President Barack Obama. It resets the statute of limitation’s clock with each paycheck that is reduced by a discriminatory policy.

Ledbetter said that her heart was heavy when she learned of Ginsburg’s death on Friday. The women kept in touch after they met in 2010. That was shortly after the death of Ginsburg’s husband, tax attorney Marty Ginsburg. She spoke about her pain to Ledbetter, whose husband Charles had died two years before.

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“So we both shared that, and we shared a tear,” said Ledbetter.

Ginsburg invited her to her Supreme Court chambers to see a framed copy of the act, next to which hung a pen that Obama used to sign it.

Ginsburg later sent Ledbetter a signed copy of a cookbook honoring her husband that was published by the Supreme Court Historical Society. Included with it was a personal note, as was the case with other pieces of correspondence from the justice that Ledbetter received at her home in Alabama. They were often brochures and other written materials that Ginsburg received that featured photos of both women.

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Ledbetter expressed her support for Jones in his race against GOP challenger Tommy Tuberville. The filling of Ginsburg’s seat is a major factor in that, she said.

“I do have to talk from my heart, because I am scared to death for the few years that I have yet to live because this country is not headed in the right direction,” she said.

She noted that Ginsburg was 60 when she was appointed to the court. Ledbetter said that she opposes any nominee who is younger than 55 because they would not have the experience and breadth of legal knowledge required to properly serve on the Supreme Court.

She said that issues like hers have long-term consequences that are made even more evident by the financial strains resulting from the pandemic, as she would have more retirement savings had she been paid what her male colleagues were.

Jones called Ledbetter a friend and hero of his.

“I’ve been saying to folks lately, if those folks at Goodyear had only done the right thing by Lilly Ledbetter and the women that worked there, maybe they’d still be operating in Gadsden these days,” he said.

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U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dies at 87

Eddie Burkhalter

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(APR GRAPHIC/SUPREME COURT PORTRAIT)

United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg — a champion of women’s rights and voter protections on the nation’s highest court — died Friday at the age of 87 from complications from metastatic pancreas cancer.

The justice died at her home in Washington D.C., surrounded by family. Only the second woman ever to be appointed to the highest court in the nation, she served 27 years on the court, becoming a champion for women’s rights and voter protections. 

“This news is a devastating loss for our country and for all those who have been inspired by the inimitable Justice Ginsburg during her long and historic career. Justice Ginsburg led a life guided by principle and filled with purpose. A true trailblazer in the legal field in her own right, she inspired generations of young women to reach for heights that previously felt impossible. Through her quiet dignity, her willingness to bridge political divides, and her steady pursuit of justice, she was a standard-bearer for positive leadership,” Sen. Doug Jones said in a statement. 

“Her bold dissents in the Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. and Shelby County v. Holder cases are particularly meaningful to me, and to so many in Alabama and across the country. She stood for what was right and for the constitutional principles of equality and democracy that she held dear, even if it meant she was in the minority on the Court. As only the second woman to ever serve on the Court, she made full use of her opportunity to serve as a voice for women on the bench.

“Beyond her legal acumen, Justice Ginsburg will also be remembered for her sharp wit, her tireless advocacy for voting rights, and her historic role in fighting for a more equal society for women across the country. She will be greatly missed. Louise and I extend our sincerest condolences to Justice Ginsburg’s loved ones. We’re praying for them as they grieve this tremendous loss,” Jones said. 

Margaret Huang, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, in a statement Friday said that our country has lost a monumental and transformative figure. 

“Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was not only a trailblazer, a hero, and a singular inspiration, she was also a deeply principled person who demonstrated great courage and conviction throughout her entire legal career,” Huang said. 

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“At the time of her appointment in 1993, Justice Ginsburg was only the second woman to be seated on the U.S. Supreme Court, but it wasn’t her first time in the Court. As director of the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, she argued and won five cases before the Justices. And from her first term, she made it her mission to guarantee equal protection for women and other marginalized communities. We are eternally grateful for her decades of work — and landmark achievements — in pursuit of this essential goal.

“In her later years, she became an icon for a younger generation. Her resolute determination for justice inspired millions, including all of us at the Southern Poverty Law Center. With her countless accomplishments in mind and some of her courage in our hearts, we recommit ourselves to continuing her mission to achieve justice and equity for all,” Huang continued.

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts said our nation has lost a justice of historic stature.

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“We at the Supreme Court have lost a cherished colleague. Today we mourn but with confidence that future generations will remember Ruth Bader Ginsburg as we knew her, a tireless and resolute champion of justice,” Roberts said.

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Defense attorneys call for AG to drop charges against Selma police officers

Brandon Moseley

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Attorney General Steve Marshall

Attorneys Julian McPhillips Jr. and David Sawyer are holding a news conference in Montgomery Thursday to again ask Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall to drop charges against three Black Selma Police Officers who were re-indicted on felony charges of lying to the attorney general.

McPhillips and Sawyer say that Marshall’s actions caused the three Selma Police Officers — Jeff Hardy, Tori Neeley and Kendall Thomas — to all be re-indicted, a move that the defense attorneys call unprecedented.

“For almost two years, Assistant Attorney General Andrew Arrington, assigned to the case, has refused to specify what the lie is, or was,” McPhillips and Sawyer wrote. “There has been no particulars as to any crime alleged, such as time, place, persons, things, and other details.”

McPhillips and Sawyer also are asking Marshall to stop issuing motions to recuse African-American judges in Lowndes County from the case. The first judge was Judge Collins Pettaway.

In July, the Court of Criminal Appeals granted the AG’s motion to remove Pettaway.

The AG’s office has said that the officers are being accused of “lying about the condition of the evidence room” and “lying about whether they were not allowed to re-enter the evidence room until they received permission from the Attorney General.”

The officers allegedly said the evidence room was “left in disarray” and the attorney general’s office said, “oh no, it was not in disarray.” Such differences are a matter of opinion, and not the subject of a criminal indictment, McPhillips says.

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“Such a petty dispute, driven apparently by rivalry, jealously, and/or racism from the Attorney General’s Office is unbecoming the highest law enforcement office in Alabama,” charged McPhillips.

Now, the attorney general’s office is seeking to remove Judge Marvin Wiggins — who is also African-American and was just recently assigned to the case.

The attorneys say that before calling this news conference, they tried twice to speak with Marshall about their concerns in this case but were rebuffed both times.

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McPhillips and Sawyer are renewing their call on Marshall to dismiss the cases against the law enforcement officers, because the charges “are frivolous, irresponsible, racially discriminatory, and counter-productive to good law enforcement.”

McPhillips and Sawyer promise to reveal even more of the “unseemly details” at the news conference with all three policemen present and speaking in their own defense.

If Marshall refuses to dismiss the case, McPhillips and Sawyer are calling upon him to immediately cease all efforts to remove Wiggins.

The defense attorneys stated that this second recusal request is unfounded, highly racially prejudicial, discriminatory and unsavory.

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Former Tallapoosa Soil and Water Conservation District employee convicted of theft

Brandon Moseley

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Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall announced Wednesday that the former district administrative coordinator for the Tallapoosa County Soil and Water Conservation District, Amanda M. Milford, has been convicted of theft of property in the first degree.

Milford, age 40, lives in Alexander City. She pleaded guilty to an information, a procedure in which felony charges are resolved without requiring grand jury involvement. She was sentenced by Tallapoosa County District Court Judge Kim Taylor to two years imprisonment and ordered to pay $59,473.13 in restitution.

Milford’s sentence of imprisonment was suspended and she was placed on probation for a period of five years.

An audit conducted by the Alabama Examiners of Public Accounts discovered the theft, which was further investigated by the attorney general’s Special Prosecutions Division. Milford used her signature authority for bank accounts belonging to the Tallapoosa County Soil and Water Conservation District to steal public funds, duplicate travel expenses and alter her rate of pay to receive an inflated paycheck.

The district court ordered Milford to pay restitution for both the amount she stole from the Soil and Water Conservation District and non-sufficient funds fees incurred as a result of Milford’s theft.

Marshall commended his Special Prosecutions Division for its work in the case. He also expressed his appreciation for the assistance provided by the Alabama Examiners of Public Accounts, the Tallapoosa County Soil and Water Conservation District and the Tallapoosa County District Attorney’s Office.

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