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Supreme Court ruling grapples with military spouse lawyers

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The state Supreme Court on Thursday turned down a proposal aimed at helping ease the way for military spouses to practice law in Florida and ordered a revamped plan that includes more restrictions.

The Florida Bar in February filed a petition to change rules and allow military spouses to practice in the state without first passing the Florida Bar exam. The proposal included a series of requirements, such as graduating from an accredited law school, passing another state's Bar exam and being admitted to practice elsewhere.

But the Supreme Court, in a 5-2 decision Thursday, directed the Florida Bar and the Florida Board of Bar Examiners to file a proposal within 90 days that includes more restrictions.

“Such restrictions must include a time limit on the duration of the authorization (to practice in Florida) and must require that all persons who receive authorization associate, either through participation in a law firm or through mentorship, with a member of the Bar who is eligible to practice law in Florida for the duration of the authorization,” said the majority decision by Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis, Peggy Quince and Ricky Polston.

But Justice Alan Lawson, in a dissent joined by Justice Charles Canady, wrote that the requirements in the Bar proposal would “suitably protect the public.”

“Accordingly, I would adopt the rules, as proposed, for the good and sufficient reason that they appropriately give form to the gratitude that we should all share for the sacrifices made each day by those serving in our Armed Forces, and by their families,” Lawson wrote.

The issue focuses on husbands or wives who are licensed to practice law elsewhere but move to Florida because their spouses are stationed in the state. In its February petition to change the rules, the Florida Bar said taking Bar exams in multiple states can be costly and that timing issues can “result in the military spouse being reassigned before the lawyer spouse is admitted.”

Because of such issues, the Bar petition said some lawyers remain in other states while their spouses are stationed in Florida. Under the proposed changes, lawyers would have to pass a “character and fitness investigation” by the Board of Bar Examiners to be eligible to practice in Florida, the petition said.

“The lawyer would become a member of The Florida Bar during the time their military spouse is stationed in Florida,” the petition said. “Therefore, while it is full admission to The Florida Bar, the admission is temporary lasting only as long as the military spouse is stationed in Florida. As a member of The Florida Bar, the lawyer would be under the jurisdiction of this (Supreme) Court and could be subject to discipline for unethical conduct.”