Bar raised highest in California

Bar exam

Prospective lawyers await the Maryland bar exam in 2010. (File photo)

It was either John Muir or Katy Perry who once described California as a place where “the grass is really greener.” Now we can add to the list of Golden State superlatives: toughest bar exam.

The Witnesseth blog has complied rankings of the most difficult bar exams based in part on bar passage rates from 2010 to 2011.

Arkansas finished No. 2, with Washington state, Louisiana (and its Napoleonic Code) and Nevada rounding out the Top 5.

Maryland finished 10th, four spots behind Virginia, which has bar exam takers with the highest LSATs, according to Witnesseth. Washington, D.C., was omitted from the list because of a too small sample size.

The news comes as Illinois announced earlier this month it would raise the minimum passing grade for its bar exam by four points. Maybe that will help boost its 32nd ranking.

In what state did you take your toughest bar exam?

Virginia considers first openly-gay judge (again)

South of the Maryland border, Virginia is deciding whether to approve the full-time appointment of  the first openly-gay judge in the state.

The state’s General Assembly is discussing the judicial appointment of Richmond’s Manchester General District Judge Tracy Thorne-Begland, who has been serving as an interim judge since the state legislature last year failed to approve his appointment, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

The Virginia House Courts of Justice Committee certified Thorne-Begland along with a number of other candidates Monday, Virginia Lawyers Weekly reported. The vote will now go before the General Assembly for consideration.

Thorne-Begland was on the verge of being confirmed last May when a last-minute scramble over his past derailed his plans. Some conservatives were concerned about his sexual orientation and others took issue with Thorne-Begland’s decision to openly come out while he was in the U.S. Navy in 1992, a time when the military still banned homosexuals from serving.

He needs 51 votes in his favor to pass the House of Delegates. The vote would then move on to the Senate.

Last year, Thorne-Begland received only 33 votes in the House.

Virginia Supreme Court yelps over censorship

The Virginia Supreme Court is dealing with new-age censorship this week as it tackles a case dealing with negative posts on business review websites Yelp and Angie’s List.

The court overturned a preliminary injunction against a Fairfax County woman for negative reviews of a Washington contractor who worked on her house. The contractor subsequently filed a $750,000 defamation lawsuit against the homeowner.

The Fairfax County Circuit Court had ordered her reviews on the websites removed. The ACLU appealed the decision, saying the woman’s First Amendment rights were violated.

The state supreme court overturned the injunction two days after the appeal was filed, finding the contractor had an adequate remedy in suing for damages.

According to The Washington Post, such lawsuits are on the rise as the country grapples balancing free speech with defamation and libel in the age of infinite Internet information.

Law blog roundup: Back-to-school edition

The kids are back to school and you’re at work. Take a minute to check out some law links to start the week.

  • Copyright laws might prevent public consumption of the Savory collection — a treasure trove of jazz recordings from the 1930s and 1940s.
  • Two couples with ties to the Maryland legal community made the New York Times Weddings/Celebrations page.
  • Virginia’s AG says the state can further regulate abortion clinics.
  • The Maryland Injury Law Blog is supporting sitting judges Laura Kiessling and Ronald Jarashow in the race for Anne Arundel County Circuit Court judge — even though they say only 11 people could make an informed decision in that race.
  • Lots of students on other career tracks work for free in summer internships, but law schools in Florida are refusing to post requests seeking summer associates who will work for free because of labor laws.
  • More and more are leaving big law behind.
  • The Huffington Post has a Q&A with Pastor Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church.

Silverman weighs in on alleged lacrosse killer’s defense

Over at Silverman, Thompson, Slutkin & White’s Maryland Criminal Attorney Blog, Steve Silverman is criticizing early statements made by the lawyer for George Huguely, the University of Virginia lacrosse player charged with murdering his former girlfriend, Yeardley Love. Love, also a lacrosse player at the university, was from Cockeysville.

Huguely’s lawyer has made the following statement: “Until more information becomes available, it is our hope that no conclusion will be drawn or judgment made about George or his case. However, we are confident that Ms. Love’s death was not intended, but an accident with a tragic outcome.”

This is exactly the wrong way to go about the early stages of handling a case like Huguely’s, Silverman writes:

For the defense attorney to characterize this murder as an “accident” at this early stage only serves to enrage the public and the victim’s family as well as bait the prosecution to seek the death penalty. Also by tipping an early hand, the defense attorney has provided the police with the investigative road map they should take to focus on disproving this [poorly thought out] defense. The defense also hurt [its] chances of convincing anyone of a sincere insanity plea down the road by taking this approach.

Silverman also writes that the characterization of the killing as an “accident” will hurt Huguely because he allegedly burglarized Love’s apartment, kicking a door and taking her computer.

Now that a burglary has been committed, even if the death of Love was an “accident” as the defense attorney wants us to believe, it was a death that occurred during the course of a burglary. Any law student knows that makes a classic case for felony murder.

Gardner lawyers up

The lawyer has become the client.

Baltimore attorney Paul W. Gardner II, who has made headlines as counsel for alleged White House party-crashers Tareq and Michaele Salahi, has now himself retained a lawyer.

The lawyer, Mark R. Dycio of Fairfax, Virginia, tells me that when the Salahis told the Today show that Gardner had invited them to a Congressional Black Caucus dinner in September–another event they were accused of crashing–Gardner became a witness in their case. As such, Gardner no longer represents the Salahis, Dycio said.

Stay tuned for a full story on the Gardner angle.

The menu on Death Row

Slate had an interesting story yesterday about the last meals of death row inmates in anticipation of convicted “Beltway Sniper” John Allen Muhammad’s execution last night in Virginia. (Muhammad chose not to reveal his last meal to the public.)

The Slate story provided links to the Web site of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which posted the final meals requested by offenders until 2004, and continues to post their final statements.  Psalm 23 appeared to be a popular choice judging by a random sample. (Muhammad “ignored a request” to make a final statement, according to news reports.)

The Texas sites are eerie and chilling. Delbert Teague Jr., for example, was executed in 1998 for murdering a Fort Worth man in 1985. He did not request a final meal, but at the “last minute he decided to eat a hamburger at his mother’s request,” according to records. His last statement was as follows:

I have come here today to die, not make speeches. Today is a good day for dying.

Est Sularus Oth Mithas (My Honor Is My Life).

As someone commented on the Slate story, “there is something disgustingly voyeuristic about it all.”

Female circumcision case interesting for another reason

As if Caryn Tamber’s article weren’t compelling enough, our sister paper in Richmond points out another reason to study Gomis v. Holder.

“If the 4th Circuit’s current configuration leaves it in equipoise and publishing even fewer opinions than usual, it is at least going on the record with some of its disputes,” Deborah Elkins writes on the Virginia Lawyers Weekly blog

In recent days, the court has published two orders in cases in which it has denied rehearing en banc, with judges at each end of the spectrum publishing concurrences and dissents from those denials.

True, the judges don’t always fall into predictable patterns.  But their airing of views on classic issues such as the degree of deference to agency decisions and the “sanctity of the home” may be a preview of coming attractions, after some of the court’s five vacant slots are filled.

The agency-deference case Elkins refers to is Gomis, in which the court voted 5-5 not to rehear an asylum case. July’s panel decision deferred, 2-1, to the BIA’s finding that an adult woman’s father was unlikely to make good on his vow to have her circumcised because, among other things, the practice was outlawed in Senegal in 1999 and the State Department reports it is on the wane there. 

The “sanctity of the home” case is Hunsberger v. Wood, decided Sept. 14 by a 5-4 vote with one abstention. The decision let stand a finding of qualified immunity for a police officer who made a warrantless entry to a home at night, accompanied by a civilian who was looking for his missing stepdaughter.


What about the Widener seat?

With the Senate Judiciary Committee poised to vote Thursday on Judge Andre Davis’ nomination to fill “the Murnaghan seat” on the 4th Circuit, Virginia’s senators have floated a name to fill “the Widener seat.”

Our sister paper in Richmond, Virginia Lawyers’ Weekly, says Senators Jim Webb and Mark Warner have recommended to President Obama that he nominate Justice Barbara Milano Keenan, currently on the commonwealth’s high court.

Plenty of empty spots to go around…

Biker v. Insurance Company: The rematch

From our sister paper south of the Potomac comes this story of a health insurance company that refused to pay on a $100,000 claim for a motorcycle rider’s injuries from a crash after he pleaded guilty to reckless driving, a misdemeanor. (He had been charged originally with drunken driving, Virginia Lawyers Weekly reported.)

Anthem Health Plans of Virginia figured there was no coverage because the General Provisions of its policy specify that it “does not cover any loss that results from the covered person committing … an illegal act.”

Roderick Bailey’s lawyer, though, argued that “illegal acts” is too broad a term to go undefined in the policy, which separately excludes the results of the insured’s felonies — under the “War” exclusion, 20 pages away from the General Provisions.

Misdemeanor reckless driving, by contrast, is essentially unintentional conduct, Bailey argues; and isn’t that what insurance is for? In other words, letting insurers deny coverage for unintentional conduct should be against public policy.

The lower court ruled for Anthem, which I’m told caused a stir among trial lawyers. Now, though, it’s the defense bar’s turn to worry: the Virginia Supreme Court has agreed to hear Bailey’s appeal.

A quick look online yields this similar case (pdf), decided in 2006 by a federal judge in Shreveport, La., but it’s hard to believe the situation doesn’t come up all the time. How do you think it would turn out here in Maryland?