BANGOR, Maine — Whether Husson University is able to accept students into its fledgling law school next fall as planned may depend on how creative the Maine Supreme Judicial Court is willing to be in dealing with how the school is accredited.
“The court has a window of opportunity to improve access to justice in northern and rural Maine,” Peter Murray of Portland told the court Tuesday on Husson’s behalf at a hearing held in the Penobscot Judicial Center.
Murray appeared before the justices to argue for Husson’s renewed request that its law school graduates be able to take the Maine Bar Exam. The court turned down a similar application last year. Husson maintains it has met many of the court’s previous concerns.
The court’s rules require that people who take the bar exam be graduates of a law school accredited by the American Bar Association or a similar entity or to have practiced law for a certain number of years in another state in which they have passed a bar exam.
The state’s only law school is the University of Maine School of Law in Portland. It is ABA-accredited. Officials at the Portland school have not taken a stand on Husson’s application.
In oral arguments Tuesday, Murray assured the court that the students at its law school would receive the same standard of legal education that students at institutions accredited by the ABA receive.
The Bangor-based institution, however, would not have the ABA’s stamp of approval in the near future. The ABA, he said, insists on a tenure program for faculty, something Husson did away with about 15 years ago.
Husson has recommended the court create a review commission, which would evaluate the law school program periodically and report findings and recommendations back to the court. The proposed commission, according to Husson, would not function as an accreditation body and would be funded by the university.
Laurie Gibson, counsel for the Board of Bar Examiners, which administers the bar exam, suggested a similar group be created to monitor Husson through the process of seeking ABA accreditation. She told the justices that such a process would create a record on which it could better make a decision about whether Husson was attaining the goal of meeting ABA standards.
The ABA is in the midst of its own review of its accreditation standards, which is expected to be completed within the next five years, Gibson said.
“Things are changing,” she said of the standards for law school accreditation. “Husson may be on the cusp of that change, but why reinvent the wheel?”
Husson President William Beardsley said after the hearing that the ABA has said at this time it would not consider beginning the accreditation process with Husson unless it includes tenure for its law school faculty.
The university also is seeking accreditation for its law school from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges. That stamp of approval is not required by the court. Husson’s other programs have been approved by the NEASC.
The Maine State Bar Association, which opposed Husson’s plan in 2008, supported it Tuesday provided the court could be assured it was meeting high legal education standards. The Maine Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys and the Maine Prosecutors Association are on record as supporting the plan.
Several attorneys who practice in Bangor supported Husson’s proposed law school Tuesday.
Julio DeSanctis, a longtime criminal defense attorney, told the court that Husson’s plan for a legal aid clinic would help meet the need for legal services in the Bangor area. He said that those providing legal services at free or reduced rates simply can’t meet the need.
Husson expects to enroll between 30 and 50 students a year, the university said earlier this year. The three-year program will emphasize practical skills as well as core doctrines of the law and legal analysis, officials have said.
The university, which said it has had more than 100 inquiries about the law school, also intends to allow students to attend part time, which is not an option in Portland.
In its renewed application to the court, submitted in September, Husson cited Maine Department of Labor statistics that estimated between 2006 and 2016 Maine will have 73 job openings a year for lawyers. Husson has estimated that more than half of the practicing attorneys in northern Maine are over age 50.
Murray told justices Tuesday that tuition at the Husson law school would be $18,000 a year, the same as in-state tuition at the Maine School of Law in Portland.
The state’s high court first heard arguments from Husson in February 2008. The next June, the justices unanimously rejected the university’s request. Its 12-page order focused on accreditation issues, including the fact that it did not intend to hire full-time faculty to teach and administer the law school.
In March, Husson announced that it had hired Michael Mullane, a professor at the University of Arkansas School of Law in Fayetteville, Judy Potter, former longtime professor at the University of Maine law school, and Murray to get the law school up and running.
Justices on Tuesday expressed the same concern about accreditation they did when Husson first came before them — if not the ABA, then who? Whether Husson goes forward with its plans for a law school appears to depend on how the state’s high court answers that question.