Opinions and Legal Insights

Judge Justin Walker on Bar Bureaucracies, Mental Illness, and More

From Friday’s decision in Doe v. Supreme Court of Kentucky; Judge Walker (known in part for the coronavirus / drive-in church services / Free Exercise Clause decision) is a federal judge in the Western District of Kentucky, but has been confirmed for the D.C. Circuit:

Courts, journalists, and scholars have extensively documented the mental health issues that afflict lawyers. The problems begin in law school, where “law students have disproportionate levels of stress, anxiety, and mental health concerns compared with other populations.” After graduation, lawyers suffer from depression at higher rates than non-lawyers. Not long ago, the Kentucky Bar Association President described a spike in Kentucky lawyers dying by suicide as “disproportionate” and “disconcerting.”

Jane Doe was a lawyer in Florida. She moved to Kentucky. She wanted to practice law here. Bureaucrats didn’t want her to. They thought her mental disability [apparently depression or Bipolar I Disorder or both] made her unfit. For over two years, they stopped her. But she didn’t give up. And they eventually relented.

Then Doe sued them, alleging they had illegally asked about her mental health history and treatment, illegally forced her to turn over her medical records and her therapists’ notes from their counseling sessions, and illegally treated her like a criminal because of her disability.

This case is not only about Jane Doe. It’s also about the lawyers who decide who else can be a lawyer.

Under the Kentucky Constitution, that power belongs to the Supreme Court of Kentucky. The court, in turn, delegates that job to its Bar Bureaucracy:

  • The Character and Fitness Committee and Board of Bar Examiners comprise the Office of Bar Admissions.
  • The Character and Fitness Committee prohibits people from practicing law if the committee thinks they are immoral or unfit.
  • The Board of Bar Examiners prohibits people from practicing law if they can’t pass a timed exam that tests their ability to memorize whole areas of the law they will never again need to know anything about.
  • The Kentucky Bar Association decides who gets to stay a lawyer.
  • The Kentucky Lawyer Assistance Program keeps tabs on lawyers and aspiring lawyers who have mental health issues by monitoring their medications, counseling, where they live, and where they travel.

Anyone with any power in this Bar Bureaucracy is a lawyer. So, just like an oil or drug cartel, those who are already selling something get to decide who else may sell that same thing. Of course, unlike most cartels, this one is legal. In fact, the Kentucky Constitution requires it.

If Doe had sued the Bar Bureaucracy back when it stopped her from entering the market, she would have had standing to ask the Court to block it from treating her like it did. But you can’t blame Doe for waiting to sue. If your goal is to persuade the Bar Bureaucracy’s lawyers to let you join their club, it isn’t a good strategy to poke them in the eye with a lawsuit that accuses them of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act and the United States Constitution.

Because the Bar Bureaucracy (finally) allowed Doe to practice law, she lacks standing for prospective relief. And because legislative and judicial immunity protect Bar Bureaucracies from money damages arising from the promulgation of bar rules and the adjudication of bar applications, the Court will dismiss Doe’s federal claims. In addition, the Court declines to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over Doe’s state-law claims.

The Bar Bureaucracy won this round against an applicant it deemed suspect and undesirable. But there will be more applicants—and more lawsuits. Some of those plaintiffs will have standing to seek prospective relief. And when they do, the Bar Bureaucracy will have to answer for a medieval approach to mental health that is as cruel as it is counterproductive….

Several federal and state courts have held that the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits Bar Bureaucracies from unnecessarily interrogating applicants about their mental health. So too did the Department of Justice. In 2014, it concluded that questions about applicants’ mental health do “not provide an accurate basis for predicting future misconduct.” Instead, they likely “deter applicants from seeking counseling and treatment for mental health concerns, which fails to serve the Court’s interest in ensuring the fitness of licensed attorneys.” In other words, according to the Department of Justice, a Bar Bureaucracy’s decision to ask applicants about their mental health status makes aspiring lawyers less fit to practice law.

{To be clear, neither Doe nor the Department of Justice has argued that Bar Bureaucracies cannot ask about an applicant’s relevant past conduct, regardless of whether mental disability had a role in that conduct. Rather, they argue that Bar Bureaucracies cannot ask about an applicant’s status as a person with a mental disability, and they cannot treat an applicant differently based on that status. So, for example, it’s fair game to ask, “Have you ever been fired?” Or, “Have you ever robbed a bank?” Applicants’ mental health provides no escape from the questions, even if they had a mental disability when they were fired (or robbed the bank).} …

[Doe, who was a member of the Florida bar, applied to join the Kentucky bar.] [S]hortly before Doe took the February 2016 bar exam, the Character and Fitness Committee refused to approve her application. Instead, in March, the Bar Bureaucracy proposed, and Doe signed, a “consent agreement” for conditional admission. 23 It required 1) a Kentucky Contract (more on that later); 2) compliance with Florida‘s rules and Kentucky‘s rules and reporting requirements; and 3) “residency in Kentucky … unless” Doe was relocating for work and the Bar Bureaucracy approved.

The consent agreement did not provide details about the Kentucky Contract. Yvette Hourigan, Director of the Kentucky Lawyer Assistance Program, said the contract would mirror the monitoring arrangement Doe had with the Florida Lawyers‘ Assistance Program, which was tailored to Doe’s diagnosis.

Doe passed the bar exam. She paid the dues and swearing-in fee.

Although Hourigan had promised to send a proposed contract, she didn’t. Instead, she arranged to meet with Doe the morning of the new lawyers‘ swearing-in ceremony at the State Capitol. That day, Hourigan “texted that she was running late and they would meet on the steps of the Capitol” minutes before the swearing-in.

At this point, you might be thinking that a public place with many of Doe’s peers isn’t an ideal place to discuss private medical issues. (It isn’t.)

You might also wonder if other bar applicants could overhear their discussion.26 (They could.)

Instead of the personalized contract Hourigan had promised, she presented a boilerplate contract. It included a host of medically unnecessary requirements, including random drug and alcohol testing. When Doe told Hourigan she had never had drug or alcohol problems, Hourigan told her the provisions were standard. Hourigan, who is not a doctor but plays one on the Capitol steps, also said Doe’s medications required abstinence from alcohol. (They don’t.)

Doe refused to sign the contract. She told Hourigan it violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, and “the ADA does not permit the disabled to be treated like criminals.” (It doesn’t.) …

There’s much more; if you’re interested, read the whole opinion. A bit more from the end:

By this point, you might be wondering how a plaintiff could ever challenge the way a Bar Bureaucracy asks applicants about their mental health and puts them through the ringer if they truthfully disclose a mental disability. The answer is that a plaintiff could sue for prospective relief—a declaration that the questions violate federal law and an injunction prohibiting the Bar Bureaucracy from asking them. To have standing, the plaintiff would need to be a bar applicant, not an unconditionally licensed lawyer like Doe was when she filed this suit….

Let’s recap. For her federal-law claims, Doe lacks standing for prospective relief. She also lacks standing to sue the institutional defendants other than the Supreme Court of Kentucky and the Character and Fitness Committee because the others didn’t cause her injuries. Judicial immunity and legislative immunity shield the Supreme Court of Kentucky and Character and Fitness Committee from damages.

Doe’s federal claims must therefore be dismissed. And the Court declines to exercise jurisdiction over her state-law claims….

Law school is hard. The stress, rigor, and competition can lead to depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. Many students who start school healthy are far from it by the time they graduate. Some kill themselves.

Aspiring lawyers should seek the health care they need. But if Kentucky continues to punish people who get help, many won’t. And one day, a law student will die after choosing self-help over medical care because he worried a Character and Fitness Committee would use that medical treatment against him—as Kentucky‘s did against Jane Doe.

It is not a matter of if, but when.

I’m not sure whether all this analysis is sound—it’s not quite my field—but I thought it was quite interesting. (Note also that there is some doubt about whether lawyers are any more likely to suffer from mental illness than other professionals, see Yair Listokin & Ray Noonan, Measuring Lawyer Well-Being Systematically: Evidence from the National Health Interview Survey.)