Commentary: Utah’s Supreme Court poised to aid military families with admissions rule

(Eli Lucero | Pool photo) Justice Deno Himonas, left, listens as Justice Paige Petersen asks a question during the oral arguments of Teamsters v. Utah Transit Authority on Monday, March 19, 2018, in Logan. The Utah Supreme Court traveled to Utah State University to hear arguments in two cases followed by a Q&A with those in attendance.

The Utah Supreme Court hears tough cases and usually has to pick winners and losers, but a new proposed rule presents the court with a win-win-win situation. The Utah Supreme Court can honor our nation’s military, help military families stay together and improve access to justice in Utah.

This trifecta will result from the adoption of a reciprocal Utah State Bar admission rule for spouses of military service members stationed in Utah. The idea is to allow lawyers who are licensed in another state to practice in Utah while their spouses are stationed at a military base in the Beehive State. The goal is to help military families stay together by minimizing the adverse effects of military service on a spouse’s legal career.

The state of Utah has a clear public policy of supporting military families in this way. Earlier this year, the Utah Legislature passed a bill sponsored by Sen. Todd Weiler to ease licensing requirements for husbands and wives whose spouses are assigned by the U.S. military to serve at bases in Utah.

Because military families tend to move often, professional licensing requirements can often be a significant impediment to a military family’s ability to stay together. The unemployment rate for military spouses is more than double the national average. By allowing reciprocal recognition of professional licenses issued to military spouses in other states, Utah has made it easier for spouses to obtain employment in a new jurisdiction, thereby helping military families move together with each new posting in service of our country.

The law passed by the Utah Legislature authorizes reciprocal recognition of licensing of military spouses in many professions, but it does not apply to lawyers. That is because the Utah Constitution invests the Utah Supreme Court with the sole responsibility to govern the practice of law in our state. Among these tasks is managing the standards and processes for lawyers to be admitted the Utah State Bar to practice law in our state.

Thirty-two other states have already adopted reciprocal admission rules for lawyers. Last year the Utah Supreme Court appointed me to serve on a subcommittee whose mission was to develop a military spouse admission rule for Utah.

The resulting proposal has been endorsed by Military Spouse JD Network, an organization that helps military spouse lawyers to navigate the challenges of maintaining a legal career while married to someone in our nation’s military.

The proposal has also been endorsed unanimously by the Utah Supreme Court’s Advisory Committee on the Rules of Professional Conduct.

The proposed rule is not without opposition. Some critics worry that the rule might enable unqualified people to practice law in Utah without taking the Utah Bar exam. The proposed rule addresses this concern in a number of ways. Only licensed lawyers who are in good standing in another state would be eligible to apply for admission under the proposed rule. In addition, if the applicant has less than two years of experience and became licensed in another state with a bar test score below Utah’s threshold, then the military spouse lawyer would be required to carry malpractice insurance and to practice under the supervision of a Utah State Bar member who would have full responsibility for all matters handled by the military spouse lawyer.

The requirements of the reciprocal admission rule will protect the public, maintain the high standards of the legal profession, and facilitate the reciprocal admission of military spouse lawyers to serve clients in Utah.

Last month the Utah Supreme Court voted to publish the proposed rule and invited public comment until Dec. 16. You can submit a comment to support the reciprocal admission rule by clicking here.

Later this month or early next year, the Utah Supreme Court can make Utah the 33rd state in the country to adopt a reciprocal admission rule for lawyers. The adoption of the proposed rule will be a victory for military families and Utah’s legal system.

Paul C. Burke

Attorney Paul C. Burke is a member of a Gold Star family. His brother Major Matthew P. Burke, M.D., rests at Arlington National Cemetery. Dr. Burke’s birthday is Dec. 1.