487 U. S. 59
June 20, 1988
Virginia allowed lawyers licensed in other states to skip the Virginia Bar Exam if they lived in Virginia. Myrna Friedman, licensed by Illinois and DC, had worked in Virginia for many years, but lived across the river in Maryland. She applied for admission without the Bar Exam, but was denied because of her Maryland residency. Friedman charged that this rule violated the Privileges and Immunities clause, especially because a recent Supreme Court ruling prohibited states from denying non-residents a law license if they passed the state bar exam.
The Court ruled 7-2 that Virginia could not enforce its rule. Kennedy claimed that the Privileges and Immunities clause protected the rights of citizens to practice law regardless of state residency, and that laws burdening this were suspect. That Friedman could still be licensed by passing the Virginia Bar Exam was irrelevant, because it was a needless extra burden. Kennedy was unimpressed by Virginia’s argument that the rule was necessary to ensure the familiarity with Virginia law of those who got licensed. Friedman was clearly familiar with Virginia law. In any event, a different rule that Virginia lawyers had to practice in Virginia was sufficient for all the ends the state wished to achieve.
Rehnquist, joined by Scalia, dissented. He refused to accept that requiring residency for a law license violated the Privileges and Immunities clause (and he referred to a previous dissent for a more in depth explanation of why). He concluded that the Court’s dumb ruling could very well encourage Virginia to eliminate all reciprocity, and thus require all applicants to take the Bar Exam.
Supreme Court activism might be most blatantly visible not when it’s applied toward an evil end like abortion, but when it’s applied toward a merely dumb end like bar admission. When activism serves an evil cause, it’s easy to care more about the terrible real world effects of the decision than the reasoning behind the decision itself. Conversely, when activism is employed to reach a stupid but basically harmless result, the activism sticks out far more prominently.