By Jon Cassidy | Watchdog.org
AUSTIN, Texas – Children of three Texas lawmakers who graduated from the University of Texas School of Law repeatedly failed the state’s bar exam, highly unusual for the prestigious school where almost every graduate passes the bar exam on the first try.
Jeffrey Steven Carona, Carlos Manuel Zaffirini Jr. and James Ryan Pitts have taken the Texas bar exam 10 times between them, and passed it just twice. Pitts will get another chance in February.
Their parents, respectively, are state Sen. John Carona, state Sen. Judith Zaffirini and state Rep. Jim Pitts.
The failure of the three students to pass the bar on the first try is significant because their parents are powerful lawmakers who have found themselves at the center of an influence-peddling scandal at the UT School of Law.
UT Regent and reformer Wallace Hall says he has evidence several lawmakers leaned on university President Bill Powers to admit their own children to the law school, despite low test scores or grades. Lawmakers, including the parents of Pitts and Zaffirini, now support an effort to impeach Hall.
Lawmakers on the impeachment committee say Hall violated The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act when he showed outside counsel emails he says prove his case.
The bar results, revealed in a Watchdog.org investigation, may put Hall’s accusers on the hot seat.
The Texas Board of Law Examiners doesn’t publish a list of those who fail the bar exam, but it does maintain public records of everyone who sat for the test and everyone who passed. The names of students who have enrolled in the UT law school are also public record.
Watchdog.org requested all of that information to produce a database of UT grads failing the bar exam over the last eight years. Out of nearly 2,700 UT law school grads in that period, we found only 197 who had to retake the bar exam. Only four UT grads in that time failed the test more times than Zaffirini and Carona.
The Texas bar exam isn’t that hard, relatively speaking. For the July 2013 exam, first-time examinees from Texas’ nine law schools passed the bar at a rate of 88.74 percent, higher than the rate in most states.
If the test is reasonably easy for everyone, it ought to be very easy for the students at UT, which, at No. 15 nationally, is by far the highest-ranked of the state’s law schools. Indeed, of the 268 UT grads sitting for the bar exam for the first time in July, 256 passed.
Is it possible that some of the 12 who failed the bar were never Longhorn material in the first place?
After all, Baylor University, ranked No. 54 in the nation, did even better than UT, as it has for five straight exams, with only three members out of a class of 121 failing in July.
We asked the three recent grads if they wanted to comment, or provide transcripts and law school admissions test scores to prove they deserved their places. We heard back only from Pitts’ boss, attorney Levi G. McCathern.
McCathern, who has employed Ryan Pitts while he tries to pass the bar, wrote to say, “We are looking forward to your article. As you are obviously aware, Ryan is not a public figure, so please ensure that your facts are accurate.”
Whether or not Pitts is a public figure, his father is – as are the parents of Jeff Carona and Carlos Zaffirini.
Pitts senior is the retiring chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. He has already admitted writing to UT President Powers on his son’s behalf.
Zaffirini, a Democrat, is so influential that she managed to chair the Senate Higher Education Committee for four years even while Republicans held the majority. Along with state Rep. Dan Branch, the chairman of the House Committee on Higher Education, Zaffirini is considered the most influential voice on public universities in the Legislature.
Carona is the chairman of the Business and Commerce Committee. Though not known for his sway over education matters, he has given $31,043 to Zaffirini’s campaign in recent years, according to data from the National Institute for Money in State Politics. It is uncommon for Dallas Republicans to be so generous to Laredo Democrats.
Contact Jon Cassidy at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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