Oregon Joins Washington, Utah in Granting COVID-19 Diploma Privilege

Earlier today, the Oregon Supreme Court approved diploma privilege in a 4-3 vote during a public meeting held via video conference.

Oregon is now the third state to grant diploma privilege in the wake of COVID-19. Wisconsin has also long offered diploma privilege to graduates of Wisconsin law schools.

The order extends diploma privilege to anyone who had registered for the July 2020 Oregon bar exam and graduated either from an Oregon law school, or from an ABA-accredited institution with an overall institutional bar passage rate for first-time examinees last year of 86% or greater. The restriction to in-state schools and ABA-accredited schools with a passage rate of 86% or more mirrors Utah’s order. The order did not cancel the July bar exam, but it did lower the passing score from 274 to 266. The order also provides for a remote bar examination in October 2020, like in D.C.

The meeting was convened for the purpose of discussing a letter, signed by the deans of all three of Oregon’s law schools, that advocated for diploma privilege. The letter, signed by Dean Marcilynn A. Burke of the University of Oregon School of Law, Dean Brian Galini of the Willamette University College of Law, and Dean Jennifer J. Johnson of Lewis & Clark Law School, as well as many professors from each of the three schools, focused on the disparate impacts of COVID-19 and the racist killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Rayshard Brooks, and others.

The letter followed in the footsteps of advocacy by would-be examinees in Oregon, who advocated for diploma privilege in open letters, impact statements, and petitions of their own to the Oregon Supreme Court. Their advocacy proved essential in raising awareness and in rallying their law schools to their aid.

Oregon’s response to the deans’ letter reinforces the importance of bar applicant activism coupled with institutional backing. In Washington, student and recent graduate activists pushed each of the state’s three law schools to advocate for diploma privilege. Ultimately, diploma privilege was granted after a unanimous vote by the Seattle University School of Law faculty to petition the Washington Supreme Court for diploma privilege. Likewise, in Utah, diploma privilege was granted only after an extra push from Dean Gordon Smith of the J. Reuben Clark Law School at Brigham Young University.

Oregon and Washington both granted diploma privilege despite early obstacles. The Washington Supreme Court initially declined to grant diploma privilege, before reversing course months later. In Oregon, the state bar association lobbied against diploma privilege. The bar association claimed that a statute, ORS § 9.220, required a bar exam—but the deans deftly responded that the Oregon Supreme Court nevertheless retained power to eliminate the bar exam under its inherent authority to regulate the practice of law, recognized in ORS § 9.006.

We congratulate our fellow activists in Oregon on their success and celebrate Dean Burke, Dean Galini, Dean Johnson, Chief Justice Walters, Justice Nakamoto, Justice Flynn, and Justice Nelson for their courage and wisdom. We hope other jurisdictions will follow the lead of the great states of Oregon, Washington, and Utah, toward a more compassionate, equitable, and responsible approach to attorney licensing in a pandemic. Oregon is proof that advocacy works, and we will keep up our activism in D.C. and across the country.

This article was updated on July 4, 2020 to link to and describe the contents of Oregon’s diploma privilege order.