Campaigns & Elections

Bar admittance unlikely to impede a Teachout attorney general run

Law professor Zephyr Teachout isn’t admitted to the New York state bar, posing a political hurdle to her potential candidacy for state attorney general, but that may be fixed more easily than some experts expected.

Zephyr Teachout

Zephyr Teachout a katz/Shutterstock

Zephyr Teachout is not currently admitted to the New York bar, but this may not be a roadblock to her campaign as much as a speed bump. City & State reported last week that Teachout, who recently formed an exploratory committee to consider running for state attorney general, is not admitted to the state bar.

However, Teachout can be admitted to the bar on motion, meaning that she does not have to take the bar exam because she is a member of the North Carolina bar, which has a reciprocity agreement with New York. Teachout argued to City & State last week that getting admitted to the bar by motion is relatively “pro forma,” and added that she had started the process. This week, after our story ran, she followed up to point out that the North Carolina Bar Association defines active as simply continuously being a dues-paying member, which she is.

As City & State noted in its previous article, waiving in from North Carolina is only allowed for active members of the bar. Last week, a representative of New York State Board of Law Examiners told us that being a practicing lawyer involved regularly appearing in court. But they were apparently mistaken: The rules of the state Appeals Court include as practicing teaching as a professor at a university for five of the preceding seven years before the application.

Sarah Steiner, an election lawyer, told City & State that Teachout’s application to be admitted by motion might face some difficulties on the ethics portion of the process, as she was reprimanded by the North Carolina bar for not informing the state bar that she had moved to another state while she was a counsel for a death penalty case, and had been questioned about her residency when she challenged Gov. Andrew Cuomo in the 2014 Democratic primary. Whether or not this will factor in Teachout’s application is up to the Appellate Division of the state Supreme Court, which has a Committee on Character and Fitness that reviews applications of all individuals seeking admission on motion.

The admission process requires a written history of educational and legal experience, in which Teachout could disclose her North Carolina bar reprimand. The application also requires affidavits, or letters of recommendation, affirming a candidate’s “good moral character.”

Once these application materials have been filed, the committee can decide to take further action to study a candidate’s character and fitness.

“I don’t think that they’re going to just push her through,” Steiner said. “I think they’re going to look at this stuff and say, well, the Character and Fitness Committee has to look at this.”

However, other experts say such relatively minor issues probably wouldn’t prevent Teachout’s admission. NYU School of Law professor Stephen Gillers, an expert on legal ethics, said in an email that “how much it will count depends on exactly what she did, how long ago it happened, her explanation, and her behavior in the interim.”

“A reprimand is the least serious public discipline so she’ll likely get in but there’ll be a delay to investigate,” Gillers wrote.

Teachout told City & State in an email that she didn’t “think it will take long.”

“The reprimand was for not giving them a forwarding address, and was 13 years ago,” Teachout said.

Ethics lawyer Ronald Minkoff said that the reprimand would likely be a “small factor” in determining her motion, as compared to the other aspects of the application.

If Teachout follows the instructions for the application process to the letter, her admission to the bar on motion may indeed be pro forma. However, it might be better for Teachout’s political ambitions to join the New York bar before the attorney general race begins, as it could remain a politically liability until it’s resolved.