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First Amendment Library:
David W. Peck


An applicant for admission to the Bar of New York must be a citizen of the United States, have lived in the State for at least six months, and pass a written examination conducted by the State Board of Law Examiners. In addition, New York requires that the Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court in the judicial department where an applicant resides must "be satisfied that such person possesses the character and general fitness requisite for an attorney and counsellor-at-law." New York Judiciary Law § 90, subd. 1, par. a (1968).[1] To carry out this provision, the New York Civil Practice Law and Rules require the appointment, in each of the four Judicial Departments into which the Supreme Court is divided, of a Committee or Committees on Character and Fitness.[2] Section 528.1 of the Rules of the New York Court of Appeals for the Admission of Attorneys and Counsellors-at-Law requires that the character and general fitness specified in Judiciary Law § 90 "must be shown by the affidavits of two reputable persons residing in the city or county in which [the applicant] resides, one of whom must be a practicing attorney of the Supreme Court of this State."[3] The Committees also require *157 the applicant himself to fill out a questionnaire.[4] After receipt of the affidavits and questionnaire, the Committees conduct a personal interview with each applicant. As a final step before actual admission to the Bar, an applicant must take an oath that he will support the Constitutions of the United States and of the State of New York.[5]This case involves a broad attack, primarily on First Amendment vagueness and overbreadth grounds, upon this system for screening applicants for admission to the New York Bar. The appellants, plaintiffs in the trial court, are organizations and individuals claiming to represent a class of law students and law graduates similarly situated, seeking or planning to seek admission to practice law in New York. They commenced two separate actions for declaratory and injunctive relief in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, naming as defendants two Committees on Character and Fitness and their members and two Appellate Divisions and their judges.[6] The complaints attacked the statutes, rules, and screening procedures as invalid on their face or as applied in the First and Second Departments. A three-judge court was convened and consolidated the two suits.