Willner v. Committee on Character
373 U.S. 96 (1963)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Willner v. Committee on Character, 373 U.S. 96 (1963)

Willner v. Committee on Character and Fitness, Appellate Division

of the Supreme Court of New York, First Judicial Department

No. 140

Argued February 21, 1963

Decided May 13, 1963

373 U.S. 96

Syllabus

After passing the New York bar examinations in 1936, petitioner was denied admission to the Bar because of an adverse report by a Committee of lawyers appointed by the Appellate Division to investigate and report on the character and fitness of applicants. In the latest of several efforts to gain admission, he petitioned the Appellate Division for leave to file a de novo application, and he alleged, inter alia, that, in connection with hearings before the Committee on his 1937 application, he was shown a letter from a New York attorney containing various adverse statements about him; that a member of the Committee promised him a personal confrontation with that attorney, but that promise was never kept; and that another lawyer intended "to destroy" him, and was acting in collusion with the Secretary and two members of the Committee. The Appellate Division denied the petition without opinion. In the State Court of Appeals, petitioner alleged that he had never been afforded an opportunity to confront his accusers or to cross-examine them, and that he could not be sure of the Committee's reasons for refusing to certify him for admission. After granting leave to appeal, obtaining the file from the Appellate Division, receiving briefs, and hearing arguments, the Court of Appeals affirmed the order of the Appellate Division without opinion, but it amended its remittitur to recite that it had necessarily passed upon a question under the Federal Constitution, and held that petitioner was not denied due process of law in violation of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.

Held: Petitioner was denied procedural due process when he was denied admission to the bar by the Appellate Division without a hearing before either the Committee or the Appellate Division on the charges filed against him. Pp. 373 U. S. 97-106.

(a) The issue presented is justiciable, since the claim of present right to admission to the Bar of a State and the denial of that right is a controversy. P. 373 U. S. 102.

Page 373 U. S. 97

(b) The requirements of procedural due process must be met before a State can exclude a person from practicing law. P. 373 U. S. 102.

(c) Procedural due process often requires confrontation and cross-examination of those whose word deprives a person of his livelihood. Pp. 373 U. S. 103-104.

(d) Where, as here, the Appellate Division held no hearings of its own to determine petitioner's character, but relied entirely upon the report of the Committee, it cannot escape the requirements of due process by claiming that the Committee's action was merely advisory. P. 373 U. S. 104.

(e) In view of the certification by the Court of Appeals that it "necessarily" ruled on the constitutional issue "presented," it cannot be said that petitioner sought relief too late. P. 373 U. S. 104.

(f) Petitioner was clearly entitled to notice of, and a hearing on, the grounds for his rejection, either before the Committee or before the Appellate Division. Pp. 373 U. S. 104-105.

11 N.Y.2d 866, 182 N.E.2d 288, reversed.

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