ABA at risk for contempt

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The Justice Department yesterday asked a federal judge to hold the American Bar Association (ABA) in civil contempt for violating a 1996 antitrust consent decree that prohibited the ABA from misusing the law school accreditation process.

The department also filed a proposed order and a stipulation in which the ABA would acknowledge the violations and agree to reimburse the government $185,000 in fees and costs incurred during the department’s investigation. The proposed order is subject to approval by U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth.

“The antitrust division takes compliance with court decrees very seriously,” said Assistant Attorney General Thomas O. Barnett, who heads the department’s antitrust division. “No one is above the law and those who do not comply with their obligations under court orders must be prepared to face consequences.”

ABA spokeswoman Serena Butler said yesterday that the organization does not comment on pending court litigation.

In June 1995, the department filed an antitrust lawsuit against the ABA in U.S. District Court in Washington, accusing the association of allowing its law school accreditation process to be misused by law school personnel with a direct economic interest in the outcome of accreditation reviews, resulting in anti-competitive conduct.

A year later, the court entered an agreed-upon final judgment prohibiting the ABA from fixing faculty salaries and compensation, boycotting state-accredited law schools by restricting the ability of their students and graduates to enroll in ABA-approved schools, and boycotting for-profit law schools. The final judgment also established the framework of structural reforms and compliance obligations.

According to the department’s petition, filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, the ABA violated six structural and compliance provisions in the 1996 consent decree on one or more occasions, including requirements that the ABA:

• Annually certify to the court and the United States that it has complied with the terms of the final judgment.

• Provide proposed changes to accreditation standards to the United States for review before such changes are acted on by the ABA’s Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar.

• Provide briefings to certain ABA staff and volunteers concerning the meaning and requirements of the decree.

• Obtain annual certifications from certain ABA staff and volunteers that they agree to abide by the decree and are not aware of any violations.

• Ensure that no more than half of the membership of the ABA’s Standards Review Committee be made up of law school faculty.

• Include on the on-site evaluation teams, to the extent reasonably feasible, a university administrator who is not a law school dean or faculty member.

The ABA is a national professional association for lawyers headquartered in Chicago.

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