Supreme court rejects Husson law school’s application

Posted March 04, 2010, at 12:18 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — The Maine Supreme Judicial Court on Thursday again rejected Husson University’s request to allow the graduates of its proposed law school to take the Maine bar exam.

It was the second time in two years the justices have turned down the Bangor school’s application.

“At this point we will review the options available to us,” Husson President Robert Clark said in a press release issued Thursday. “We are appreciative of the time and consideration of the court. Given the current pressures on the court, we can understand their reluctance to take on the responsibility of overseeing the implementation of a new law school.”

Clark, who took over the presidency of the university on Jan. 1, did not comment on the impact the court’s decision would have on its plan to offer classes at its law school this fall.

“We will examine the issue with our board in April,” he said of the law school’s future.

Clark replaced William Beardsley, who served as president of Husson for more than 20 years. Beardsley, who is seeking the Republican nomination for governor, said in December that one of his few regrets in stepping down was that the law school was not up and running.

The University of Maine Law School in Portland is the only law school in the state. It is accredited by the American Bar Association but does not offer evening classes. Most of its students attend classes full time and are traditional students in their early and mid-20s who enroll after earning their bachelor’s degrees.

In its proposal to the supreme court, representatives from Husson said its law school would cater to nontraditional students, offer courses at night and during the day, and allow students to attend part time. As of Thursday, Husson had received 192 inquiries from potential students, mostly from northern and eastern Maine, said Julie Green, Husson’s spokeswoman.

Don Brown, a Brewer lawyer who went to law school after a career as a police officer, called the supreme court’s decision “unfortunate for the people of Maine.”

“For nearly 15 years, I wished I could go to law school and I had to leave the state to do it,” said Brown, who spoke in favor of Husson’s proposal before the supreme court. “This is a school that is offering to start a program with no new tax dollars and have it paid for with tuition. There should be a way to put in some oversight of the program so we don’t miss the forest for the trees.”

In outlining the court’s reasons for its decision, Chief Justice Leigh I. Saufley cited the same concerns the court expressed in June 2008 when it denied Husson’s first request — the school has not opened its doors and does not intend to seek accreditation from the American Bar Association.

The American Bar Association accredits the majority of the law schools around the country. In highly populated states, such as California, a state bar association has an accreditation arm, which gives its seal of approval to fledgling law schools.

“Husson has failed to identify another existing review process, and instead invites us to create a new review process for its benefit,” Saufley wrote in the court’s 10-page opinion. “In the absence of any other mechanism to assure the quality of the legal education Husson proposes to provide to its future law students, Husson encourages the court to devise a set of state standards by which Husson’s program may be judged, and to create a ‘Law School Evaluation Commission’ tasked with determining if Husson’s program meets those standards.”

Saufley said that Husson had asked the court to take the “extraordinary steps” of:

- Creating a set of standards or criteria for determining whether a law school is providing a sound legal education.

- Fashioning a commission tasked with determining whether Husson’s program meets those standards.

The court’s decision, Saufley pointed out, creates “no legal barrier that prevents Husson from opening its doors to students.” No other law school in the country has been granted the right for its students to sit for a state’s bar exam before it has enrolled students and held classes, she said.

Justices Jon Levy, Warren Silver, Ellen Gorman and Joseph Jabar agreed with the decision. Justice Donald Alexander, who teaches part time at the law school in Portland, and Justice Andrew Mead, whose wife, Kelly Mead, teaches at Husson, did not participate in the decision.

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