NEW ORLEANS (CN) - The Louisiana Supreme Court has settled a federal civil rights investigation into discriminatory mental health questions on the state's bar applications.
The U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division in February informed the high court, its committee on bar admissions and the Louisiana Attorney Disciplinary Board that some of the questions violate the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Title II of the law bans public entities from imposing unnecessary eligibility criteria that screen out the disabled, or impose unnecessary burdens on the disabled that are not imposed on others.
Federal prosecutors said in a statement that the admissions process made decisions on applications based "on mental health diagnosis and treatment rather than conduct that would warrant denial of admission to the bar."
Under terms of the agreement
, the court is banned from "asking unnecessary and intrusive questions about bar applicants' mental health diagnosis or treatment."
It will no longer be allowed to "recommend or impose conditional admission solely on the basis of mental health diagnosis or treatment."
Also: "The committee shall not recommend conditional admission for applicants who reveal a mental health diagnosis unless information properly obtained by the committee indicates that (i) the applicant has a history of conduct that would otherwise warrant denial of admission, and the committee believes that any conduct-related concerns have not been fully mitigated by the applicant's treatment or other factors; or (ii) the applicant has a condition that currently impairs the ability to practice law in a competent, ethical, or professional manner."
The court denies that it has discriminated against any applicants and claims it has not violated the ADA, but has "worked cooperatively" with federal prosecutors to negotiate a settlement and implement corrective measures since July 2013.
The court also agreed to pay $200,000 to compensate an unspecified number of affected bar applications and attorneys.
Federal prosecutors launched their investigation in March 2011 after the Judge David Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law complained on behalf of two applicants
. At least five more applicants were interviewed.
The Bazelon Center said it was pleased with the settlement.
"There are state bar examiners that continue to operate under policies similar to those Louisiana had used," said Ira Burnim, the Bazelon Center's legal director. "Those states are on notice that they also must end such policies."
On Tuesday, Valerie S. Willard, the Louisiana Supreme Court's deputy judicial administrator, denied that the court "violated the rights of anyone seeking to become a licensed attorney" in Louisiana.
"Importantly, the court's mental health questions were very similar to questions asked by other state supreme courts and bar admission committees, which have been upheld in various court challenges," Willard said. "However, the court is not in a position to incur the expense and administrative disruption that would result from a lengthy lawsuit regarding its mental health-related questions.
The state supreme court will still be able to consider an applicant's conduct within the past five years regarding their fitness to practice law and still maintains discretion to discontinue the conditional admission process in admissions, Willard said.