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Virtue and the Law: The Good Moral Character Requirement in Occupational Licensing, Bar Regulation, and Immigration Proceedings

  • Deborah L. Rhode


Character plays a crucial role in US law. This article explores flaws in how moral character requirements determine who can work in licensed occupations, who can practice law, and who can immigrate to the United States or become a citizen. Section I summarizes psychological research on character, which raises questions about a central legal premise that individuals have a settled disposition capable of accurately predicting their behavior independent of situational influences. Section II examines the role of moral character as an employment credential. Almost a third of the workforce is covered by licensing laws that typically require proof of good character and often unjustly penalize the seventy million Americans with criminal records. Section III examines the idiosyncratic and inconsistent application of moral character requirements for lawyers. Section IV focuses on similar flaws in immigration contexts. Section V identifies reform strategies to improve the fairness of character-related decisions in the law.

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