(CN) - Louisiana bar examiners violate the civil rights of applicants by asking overly broad questions about their mental health history, federal prosecutors say.
The U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division informed the Louisiana Supreme Court, its committee on bar admissions and the Louisiana Attorney Disciplinary Board this month that some of their questions violate the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The 34-page letter deems it discriminatory for the state to grant applicants with mental health disabilities only a conditional license.
"In particular, we find that Louisiana's attorney licensure system discriminates against bar applicants with disabilities by: (1) making discriminatory inquiries regarding bar applicants' mental health diagnoses and treatment; (2) subjecting bar applicants to burdensome supplemental investigations triggered by their mental health status or treatment as revealed during the character and fitness screening process; (3) making discriminatory admissions recommendations based on stereotypes of persons with disabilities; (4) imposing additional financial burdens on people with disabilities; (5) failing to provide adequate confidentiality protections during the admissions process; and (6) implementing burdensome, intrusive, and unnecessary conditions on admission that are improperly based on individuals' mental health diagnoses or treatment," the letter of finding states.
Federal prosecutors launched an investigation in March 2011 into possible Title II violations under the ADA after the Judge David Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law complained on behalf of two applicants.
Federal prosecutors interviewed at least five more applicants.
Questions into an applicant's mental health disabilities are unnecessary because other questions about his or her conduct are sufficient, according to the letter.
"Questions designed to disclose the applicant's prior misconduct would serve the legitimate purposes of identifying those who are unfit to practice law or are unworthy of public trust, and would do so in a non-discriminatory manner," the letter states. "The court's own rules for bar admissions appropriately state that applicants who satisfy requirements for good moral character and fitness are those 'whose record of conduct justifies the trust of clients, adversaries, courts and others with respect to the professional duties owed to them.'"
Federal prosecutors say the questions about mental health do not effectively identify unfit applicants, anyway. Regarding a question as to whether a condition "if untreated could affect" an applicant's ability to practice law, the letter states the question only considers an applicant's disability in a "hypothetical future untreated form" that does not provide an assessment of their fitness to practice law.
"It seeks information about the diagnosis alone, assuming a worst case scenario that may never come to pass," the letter states. "It is akin to asking whether an applicant has financial obligations that could result in default or bankruptcy if he or she lost all income and savings."
Federal prosecutors are asking the state for several corrections in the application process, including granting unconditional admission to earlier applicants who were subjected to the illegal questions.
The Justice Department may sue Louisiana absent voluntary compliance with the letter, the letter states.
The Louisiana Supreme Court did return a request for comment.
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