Frazier v. Heebe

482 U. S. 641

June 19, 1987

David Frazier both lived and operated a law office in Mississippi, but he also wanted to practice law in Louisiana. The District Court for Louisiana’s Eastern District denied him admission to the bar. It did so on the basis of Court rules which limited the bar to those with a residence or law office in the state. This rule was based on the desire to have lawyers most familiar with Louisiana law, and to allow lawyers to be called to court on short notice. Frazier contended that the rule violated several Constitutional provisions.

The Supreme Court overturned the District Court’s rule in a 6-3 vote. Brennan wrote for the majority, and declared that the Supreme Court had the power to invalidate any rule from a lower federal court deemed to be unfair and irrational. Because Frazier had been admitted to the Louisiana bar, and because Louisianans who lived much farther away from the courthouse than Frazier could practice before the District Court, Brennan felt that the rule did not have adequate justifications. In sum, the Court held that no federal court could make residence or law office locale a justification for refused admission.

Rehnquist, joined by O’Connor and Scalia, dissented. As he explained, the majority simply invented out of nowhere a supervisory power to review and overturn all lower court rules. To the contrary, it was generally accepted that lower courts had broad and final power to set membership qualifications. Although existing statutes and court rules enabled the Supreme Court to declare lower court rules unconstitutional or inconsistent with nationwide rules, absolutely nothing authorized the Court to unilaterally abrogate a rule merely because a majority found it silly or irrational.

This is one of the more brazenly activist decisions I can remember during the term. Very sad to see Powell and White going along with this naked power grab. Truth be told, the district court’s rule strikes me as fairly reasonable, and overturning it based on its alleged irrationality seems practically Lochneresque.

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