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Court right not to waive Bar exam
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Court right not to waive Bar exam

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In the middle of a pandemic that is stretching our hospital capacity and seems stubbornly unwilling to just go away on its own, nurses are essential employees with a capital E.

They were already important and in short supply. So when COVID-19 temporarily shuttered administration of the professional licensing exam for new nurses and then created a testing backlog that left 200 nursing graduates in South Carolina unable to work, DHEC and the state licensing board granted a temporary work-around.

Under the plan, new nursing graduates will be allowed to practice as “nurse graduates,” with restricted duties and under the supervision of a registered nurse, once they register to take the NCLEX, as the test is called. They’ll lose that designation if they fail the test or once the pandemic ends.

Two elements made this suspension of the professional standards reasonable: It’s a temporary suspension and it helps meet an urgent public need.

In other words, it’s the opposite of the permanent elimination to meet only private needs that some recent law school graduates asked of the state Supreme Court. As The Post and Courier’s Sara Coello reports, more than 150 people recently asked the high court to let new graduates of the USC and Charleston schools of law practice law without taking the Bar exam.

Not to practice law temporarily until they considered it safe enough to take the exam, but to just skip it. Maybe they would work under the supervision of a real attorney for some amount of time, and maybe they wouldn’t — their petition mentions a Utah requirement that law school graduates do that for 360 hours as an example of what the court might consider.

In any event, there would be no requirement that they pass the Bar after the pandemic ends and no argument that there was an urgent public need to immediately increase South Carolina’s supply of attorneys by 350.

Since some unidentified number of the 150 unidentified petitioners were deans and professors of the law schools and S.C. attorneys, we suspect that this was in part an attempt to use the pandemic as an excuse to eliminate the exam altogether.

After all, it comes at a time of growing agitation nationally against the exam, which, like nursing exams and medical boards and other professional licensing tests, is used by states to protect the public from students who graduate without the knowledge they need. And it would give future law school graduates a pretty good argument that they shouldn’t have to take the exam, which as many as a third of graduates fail the first time.

The court very reasonably declined to allow this year’s graduates to practice law without demonstrating their competence, noting that “a significant percentage of the applicants from each law school fail to obtain a qualifying score for admission, thereby demonstrating a lack of basic legal knowledge and skills,” and opting instead to make accommodations for the pandemic that the relatively small number of test takers allows it to do.

It increased the space for the exam by more than 60% (to 69,000 square feet for 392 test takers) and divided the testing sites into four distinct locations in the cavernous Columbia Convention Center and the State Fairgrounds so fewer than 100 test takers would be in each room.

The court set strict requirements for mask wearing and social distancing before and during the two-day test, said test-takers should avoid unnecessary contact with the public for two weeks prior to the exam and, crucially, warned that anyone who violated the rules could be blackballed from practicing law for up to five years.

Those requirements make taking the Bar exam exponentially less dangerous than going out bar hopping, or hanging out at a crowded beach, or attending a party with a dozen friends, or eating in a dine-in restaurant, or working in a restaurant or participating in countless other activities that too many South Carolinians are routinely participating in.

And since the court’s ability to enforce its rules likely will produce 100% compliance, it’s probably even safer than going grocery shopping in one of our too-few mask-mandated communities.

This editorial is from The Post and Courier of Charleston via The Associated Press.

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