Supreme Court Oversight of Bar Applicants’ Character and Fitness

Often overlooked is the fact that the Supreme Court of New Jersey is more than just the court of last resort for state court appeals.  Under Article VI, section 2, paragraph 3 of the New Jersey Constitution, the Court has the power to determine standards for admission to the Bar.  The Court has not issued many formal decisions in this area of its responsibility.  However, on this date in 1983, the Court decided Application of Jenkins, 94 N.J. 458 (1983).  Jenkins was one of the first modern cases (along with Application of Matthews, 94 N.J. 59 (1983), decided a few months earlier) to discuss what constitutes “good character,” as required by Rule 1:27-2, and “fitness to practice law,” as mandated by Rule 1:25.

Matthews had involved a candidate who had participated in investment fraud prior to seeking admission to the Bar.  Jenkins was a different type of troublesome applicant, one who, according to Justice Garibaldi’s opinion for the unanimous Court, “displayed a consistent pattern of untruthfulness” and “complete and continuous lack of candor” to the Supreme Court’s Committee on Character and Board of Bar Examiners in the application process itself.  Jenkins failed to disclose criminal charges for foregery and embezzlement, various civil proceedings concerning his son, and the grounds on which he was terminated from a job with the State.  When those things were revealed, Jenkins offered shifting and contradictory stories, and claims of memory lapses that the Court found not credible.

As the Court had determined regarding Matthews, the Justices denied Jenkins admission to the Bar.  “We believe that Jenkins’ pattern of nondisclosure evidences a serious lack of fitness to practice law.  Jenkins’ action go to the integrity of the admission system.  If a candidate conceals the truth or misleads the Committee [on Character] concerning events in his past that adversely affect his character, the process for reviewing candidates will collapse and no purpose will be served.  The purpose of withholding certifications is not to punish the candidate but to protect the public and preserve the integrity of the Courts.  We have long and firmly held that ‘there is no place in the law for a man or woman who cannot or will not tell the truth, even when his or her own interests are involved.  In the legal profession, there must be a reverence for the truth.’  In re Hyra, 15 N.J. 252, 254 (1954).”

The Court then discussed whether Jenkins could rehabilitate himself sufficiently to be admitted to the Bar at a later time.  Justice Garibaldi said that “for Jenkins it will be extraordinarily difficult to overcome the strong presumption of continuing unfitness to practice law occasioned by his persistent lack of candor.”  Nonetheless, the Court did not foreclose the possibility that Jenkins could eventually show fitness.  There is no “Jesse Jenkins” listed in the 2011 New Jersey Lawyer’s Diary.

Candor in the Bar application process remains a touchstone of that process.  As in other contexts where the cover-up can be worse than the underlying offense, lack of candor can doom a Bar applicant who might otherwise have been able to overcome most problems in his or her background.