Tribal court ends test for lawyers

Lawyers no longer have to pass a special exam to practice in Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Court.

The court, which hears civil and criminal cases among tribal members and involving nontribal members' claims against Foxwoods Resort Casino, has abandoned its requirement that attorneys pass a written test that some found daunting.

"It's a positive change," Edward Gasser, president of the tribal court bar association, said Monday. "It opens it up to more attorneys."

The change was reported last week in the Connecticut Law Tribune.

Gasser said the test had become "more and more onerous" over the years and that fewer and fewer lawyers were willing to devote the time necessary to prepare for it.

The tribal court dates to 1992, the year the casino opened.

"Originally, there was no test; you just had to show you'd been admitted to practice in state court," Gasser said of the tribal court's requirements. "Then, there was a very basic, open-book test to show you had an understanding of the tribal court's rules. Over time, as judges changed, it became more akin to a real bar exam. It became much more difficult."

Gasser, whose law office is in Avon, said only about 50 percent of those who took the test in recent years passed, a far lower percentage than passes the state bar exam.

Currently, 150 to 200 lawyers are qualified to practice in Mashantucket court, a number Gasser expects to rise by about 50 percent now that the exam has been eliminated. Attorneys who apply for admission to the tribal bar must be admitted to practice in a state or federal court and pay a fee.

"In the past, a lot of very good attorneys who weren't admitted would refer cases to other attorneys who were," Gasser said. "That restricts the number of attorneys and also keeps clients from having a close relationship with their attorney.''

He said he now expects a lot more attorneys will get admitted.

M. John Strafaci, a New London lawyer who practices in Mashantucket and Mohegan tribal courts, said the number of attorneys representing plaintiffs in the courts is a fairly small group. Dropping the Mashantucket bar exam may well lead to an increase in the number of attorneys in tribal court who deal with personal injury and family law cases, he said.

"Overall, it's probably a good thing, with the exam results the way they were," Strafaci said. "It won't be a hurdle that keeps people from doing it."

The Mohegan court system, which consists of the Mohegan Tribal Court and the Mohegan Gaming Disputes Court, still requires lawyers to pass a test.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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