The Tennessee Supreme Court Has Agreed to Hear a Laughably Egregious Case of Economic Protectionism

The Tennessee Supreme Court has agreed to hear a laughably egregious case of economic protectionism in its upcoming term.  The case pits Vanderbilt Law School alumnus Maximiliano Gluzman – a preeminently qualified lawyer who graduated Vanderbilt’s LL.M. program with an almost impossible 3.919 GPA – against the Tennessee Board of Law Examiners, which has refused to allow Mr. Gluzman to take the Tennessee bar exam solely because he’s foreign.

Given the extraordinary facts of Mr. Gluzman’s case, the Board will struggle to mount a straight-faced claim that its decision to deny Mr. Gluzman the opportunity to take the Tennessee bar exam is based on anything other than its interest in protecting Tennessee’s native-born attorneys from competition—a result that benefits lawyers but harms consumers by artificially raising prices.  As a consequence, the case has the potential to extend Tennessee’s already-robust precedent on economic liberty to an industry that it has never reached before: legal services.

In 2002, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit – which has jurisdiction over Tennessee – established ground-breaking federal precedent by holding that “protecting a discrete interest group from economic competition is not a legitimate governmental purpose” and violates the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.[1]  Significantly, though, the Tennessee Supreme Court boasts an even prouder history of protecting economic liberty under the comparable provisions of Tennessee’s state Constitution.  For example, in the 1956 case Consumers Gasoline Stations v. City of Pulaski, the Tennessee Supreme Court held that: “Although [a] city may have the right to regulate [a] business, it does not have the right to exclude certain persons from engaging in the business while allowing others to do so.”[2]  Additionally, more than half a century before that, the Tennessee Supreme Court held in Harbison v. Knoxville Iron Co. that:

“The ‘liberty’ contemplated in [the Tennessee Constitution] means not only the right of freedom from servitude, imprisonment, or physical restraint, but also the right to use one’s faculties in all lawful ways, to live and work where he chooses, to pursue any lawful calling, vocation, trade, or profession, to make all proper contracts in relation thereto, and to enjoy the legitimate fruits thereof.[3]

Of note, the Tennessee General Assembly has since expanded these precedents even further as a legislative matter by enacting the “Right to Earn a Living Act” in 2016,[4] which recognized that: “it is in the public interest to ensure the right of all individuals to pursue legitimate entrepreneurial and professional opportunities to the limits of their talent and ambition” without unnecessary governmental interference.

Ostensibly, bar admission rules are intended to protect the public from unqualified attorneys.  Historically, however, they’ve often been wielded to keep disfavored minorities—like Jews and women—from becoming lawyers instead.[5]  Barriers imposed between states themselves have also been used more often than not to “insulat[e] [in-state] practitioners from out-of-state competition,”[6] rather than being adopted for the purpose of promoting any actual public interest.  Such is the case with respect to Mr. Gluzman as well—a fact that the Tennessee Supreme Court is highly unlikely to overlook.

In Mr. Gluzman’s case, there can be no serious claim that he would pose even the slightest threat to the public if he were permitted to take the Tennessee bar exam.  In fact, during Mr. Gluzman’s hearing before the Board of Law Examiners, the Board itself conceded that Mr. Gluzman was “obviously a very, very qualified person.”  His extraordinary academic credentials also support this conclusion in full.  For example, while competing against Vanderbilt’s American JD students (in his second language, no less), Mr. Gluzman was able to graduate with an eye-popping 3.919 GPA—good enough to put him at the top of Vanderbilt’s Dean’s List each semester and quite possibly making him the most academically-qualified foreign applicant ever to apply to take the bar exam in Tennessee.  Two of Mr. Gluzman’s Vanderbilt Law School professors also provided expert testimony in support of his application to take the bar exam, with one observing that Mr. Gluzman was “one of the very best students I ever had the privilege of teaching in 20 years,” and the other testifying that he was “clearly top of the class.”  Mr. Gluzman’s application to take the Tennessee bar exam also comes after more than a decade of professional success as a corporate lawyer in Argentina.

Despite this sterling record of achievement, however, the Board of Law Examiners denied Mr. Gluzman not only the opportunity to become a lawyer in Tennessee—it told him that he may never even take the Tennessee bar exam.  The purported basis for the Board’s denial was that Mr. Gluzman’s undergraduate and legal education were not “substantially equivalent” to an American education: a conclusion that itself conflicts with an expert foreign credential evaluation report filed in his case that unequivocally concluded otherwise.  According to the Board, though, a foreign applicant like Mr. Gluzman must have earned “a degree that is equivalent to a Bachelor’s degree or higher followed by a degree that is equivalent to a Juris Doctorate degree,” which he did not.

Conveniently, because the vast majority of countries around the world combine undergraduate and legal educations into just a single degree over the course of a five- or six-year period, one expert witness testified that only “[foreign] students from nine Canadian provinces, a few Australian students, and a few Japanese students” may ever hope to win permission take the Tennessee bar exam under the Board’s current standard.  Attorneys from anywhere else in the world, however, are forever prohibited from becoming lawyers in Tennessee unless they opt to re-do their entire undergraduate and legal education in the United States.  Obviously, no foreign applicant is willing to forfeit the time (seven years) and money (hundreds of thousands of dollars at a minimum, factoring in opportunity costs) necessary to satisfy that requirement.  Instead, the only rational decision is to move to states like Texas, which makes an effort to accommodate foreign attorneys rather than placing insurmountable barriers in front of them for the purpose of curbing competition.

Exacerbating this groundless discrimination, LL.M. Degrees – which many states permit to “cure” any claim of insufficient foreign credentials – from law schools like Vanderbilt and the University of Tennessee are now disregarded as useless by the Tennessee Board of Law Examiners if an attorney does not hail from one of the three aforementioned countries with law schools that match American JD programs.  Thus, if permitted to stand, the Board’s decision would significantly undermine the integrity of the LL.M. programs offered by Tennessee’s two flagship law schools.  Fearing lasting and devastating consequences from the Board’s grievous error, the Board’s decision immediately prompted Vanderbilt University and UT to file a joint petition in support of Mr. Gluzman highlighting the seriousness of the problem that the Board had created.  Even then, however, the Board opted to ignore it.

In addition to disregarding Mr. Gluzman’s surpassing personal qualifications, the reality that the Board of Law Examiners is not actually focused on protecting the public from unqualified lawyers is revealed by the fact that it has taken no apparent interest in the declining bar passage rates posted by Nashville School of Law in recent years.  The last time the bar exam was administered in Tennessee, for example, fully 72% of Nashville School of Law graduates failed it—a fact that did not visibly cause the Board of Law Examiners even the slightest concern.  Now, however, an indisputably qualified Vanderbilt Law School graduate wants to sit for the bar exam, but because he’s foreign, the Board won’t even let him take it?  Plainly, the Board’s motives have little and less to do with protecting the public from unqualified lawyers, and a great deal more to do with protecting American attorneys from foreign competition.  Whether the Board’s decision – and all of its attendant consequences – will be permitted to stand, however, only time will tell.

Gluzman v. Tennessee Board of Law Examiners is expected to be heard in the Spring or Summer of 2017.  Read Mr. Gluzman’s brief before the Tennessee Board of Law Examiners here.

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[1] Craigmiles v. Giles, 312 F.3d 220, 224 (6th Cir. 2002).

[2] 292 S.W.2d 735, 737 (Tenn. 1956).

[3] 53 S.W. 955, 957 (Tenn. 1899).

[4] See Tenn. Code Ann. § 4-5-501, et seq. (2016).

[5] See Deborah Rhode, Moral Character As A Professional Credential, 94 Yale L.J. 491, 497-502 (1985) (noting that State bars historically have excluded women, Jews, those of Eastern European decent, religious fanatics, Communists, and adulterers, among others, because these allegedly socially unacceptable or radical political behaviors were said to have demonstrated a propensity to violate professional norms).

[6] Supreme Court of New Hampshire v. Piper, 470 U.S. 274, 278 (1985).