The Legal Profession Appears To Have A Serious Character Standards Problem…

I refer you, for context, to the recent post about Shon Hopwood, Georgetown Law Center’s former bank-robber, former federal prisoner professor, who was welcomed into membership in the D.C. bar…like me.

Now comes word that Tarra Simmons, a third-year law student, convicted felon and former drug addict, who in December won a Skadden Fellowship to help people recently released from prison, was told by the Washington State Bar Association that she did not possess the character to make her a trustworthy lawyer.

Tarra was a magna cum laude law school graduate, and co-chairs Washington’s Statewide Re-Entry Council.  She recently received a gubernatorial appointment to the state’s Public Defense Advisory Committee, and was selected by the dean of Seattle University School of Law to receive the school’s dean’s medal this year.

Nevertheless, the character and fitness board’s vote against Simmons was not even close, at 6-3.

A registered nurse for 11 years, Simmons became addicted to prescription drugs and methamphetamine after her father died, as she self-medicated for depression. In 2011, she was charged with felony theft, drug possession and gun possession, pleaded guilty, served 20 months in state prison. She says she  wants to assist former justice-involved individuals, as  a lawyer who has lived their experience, so they “can overcome barriers and rejoin society.”

But Tarra cannot cannot take the Washington Bar examination without getting a positive  character and fitness recommendation, and that looks unlikely. She’s appealing to the Washington Supreme Court, but traditionally that forum is tougher in assessing the  character and fitness of  potential admittees.

I think her course now is obvious: move to the District of Columbia. The bar there will surely see no reason to doubt her character.

After all, it’s not like she robbed a bank.

__________________________

Pointer: ABA Journal

15 Comments

Filed under Character, Ethics Alarms Award Nominee, Law & Law Enforcement, Professions

15 responses to “The Legal Profession Appears To Have A Serious Character Standards Problem…

  1. Jack wrote, “I think her course now is obvious: move to the District of Columbia. The bar there will surely see no reason to doubt her character.

    After all, it’s not like she robbed a bank.”

    GREAT POST!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  2. Anonymous Coward

    >tagged as consistency

    I take it you’re posting this because a significant number of people responded defending Hopwood in the last article, and I have to say I agree with them, and also think that the same applies to her circumstances as well.

    If someone in her circumstances can overcome what damage she has done and be contributing to society in this profession I say let them.

    Now, if she suddenly wanted to become a pharmacist I would be more weary, just as if Hopwood wanted to be a nighttime security guard at a Bank I’m sure that would not be appropriate either.

    Will you keep posting further and further grey area stories of this nature just to see where various posters here draw the line? I myself am curious about some of them.

    • Whenever I can—these weren’t the first. The inconsistencies on this issue drive me nuts.

      By the way, my answer to your last set of arguments is that anyone who can’t be trusted to be a bank guard or a pharmacist is obviously should be not be trusted to be a lawyer.

  3. Sarah B.

    It is interesting, isn’t it, the difference between her and the professor? I hope, though I have no evidence, that these two scenarios show a proper application of the justice system. According to my civics classes, the justice system has three main points, specifically: repercussion, reparation, and recuperation. However, it seems we often forget about the recuperation. Obviously, if someone paid the time and the fine, they completed the repercussion and reparation. However, the much neglected recuperation may or may not have happened. We see this, in part, with recidivism rates. An ex-bank robber has a much lower recidivism rate than an ex-drug user. Certainly, a murderer who murdered his wife and her lover is less likely to commit other crimes than an addict, who is rarely fully addiction free and often will try anything for the next hit, after the jail sentence is done, at least until he marries another woman and she cheats on him, for example.

    I am actually impressed with both this topic and that if the ex-bankrobbing professor. It may be that both are being judged upon their own merits, and not a title, felon. Of course, I do not mean that either of them did not deserve the title, but any system which claims to recuperate felons should then give them some chance to break free of their past errors.

    For example, a study I once read on sex offenders finds that systems that claim that SO’s must follow incredibly strict rules for life, find high recidivism rates, but systems that, once the court and therapist are satisfied, grant reasonable freedoms based on therapists recommendations, see some of the lowest recidivism rates of all crimes. This study (which I’m having a hard time finding right now, so please just consider the logic, not the science) recommended a new way to fight crime. It stated that, upon completion of a sentence, an ex-con should be evaluated by a criminal psychologist and granted freedoms based upon their likelihood of recidivism. Denying jobs, or limiting them to the fast food industry is likely to lead to more problems than allowing them to find a satisfying way to handle the rest of their life. If I were to guess, I hope to say that he passed an evaluation and was found to have learned the proper lessons, while she was not. I don’t see how the legal profession, or teaching college kids is any more harmful than engineering or accounting. In fact, I would say that engineering and actuarial work would probably lead to more temptation for these two people since engineering would help you open that vault and make your own drugs while the number crunching would help you find ways to steal and embezzle, were you so inclined.

    Unfortunately, there is little way to know if the D.C. bar is too lenient or the Washington bar is too strict, but the fact that, in similar situations, they decided opposite ways, leads me to think that this may actually be a semi-fair system. I’d feel much better about that assessment if these two cases were from the same organization, however.

    • When exactly does one go before this board? If she is already a third-year student, wouldn’t the ethical thing to judge them before coming into the program as to not waste their time or money?

  4. Wayne

    I notice she used the Obama term, “Justice Involved Individuals” which sounds a little slimy to me. Obviously a smart lady, on one hand grief over her father’s death probably played a role in her theft of prescription drugs. But her use of methaphetamine and felony theft? Really!!

    • Aleksei

      Good catch Wayne, I wanted to take a note on the Obama era euphemism as well. I feel that the phrase is a bit insidious, like undocumented immigrant.

  5. John Billingsley

    I am a bit puzzled by this. Wouldn’t an individual applying to law school know about the character and fitness requirement? I can’t imagine why someone would put the time, effort, and money into attending law school if they had any question as to being able to satisfy that requirement. Having multiple felony convictions would have to raise a red flag in the mind of anyone intelligent enough to gain admission to law school.

    As a non-attorney whose knowledge about law school comes from watching The Paper Chase years ago, I have a few questions. Do the law school admissions committees look at this type of thing? If the admission committee has knowledge of issues that are likely to prevent a student from being admitted to the bar, are they acting ethically in accepting them into the program? Is there a process by which a prospective law student can get a reading on what the board is likely to decide? Would there be a reason to attend law school if one knew they could not be admitted to the bar? Thanks for any enlightenment anyone can provide.

    • Replies are my own, a non-lawyer (my mother is so proud), and may contain varying levels of snark:

      I can’t imagine why someone would put the time, effort, and money into attending law school if they had any question as to being able to satisfy that requirement.

      Perhaps she had reason to believe the rules did not apply to her case. This could be the result of several things, like who encouraged her, or cases like the bank robber prof in DC, or even snowflake progressive tendencies, which make her believe rules are for others.

      …raise a red flag in the mind of anyone intelligent enough to gain admission to law school.” I have seen some pretty dumb lawyers. Of course, I have seen some pretty dumb engineers as well, who (without a drop of common sense) graduated from college and worked in the field. Intelligence is not only book learning, it is the ability to put that knowledge to critical thought. Note that this woman was ALREADY a registered nurse, and still was prone to bad judgement calls (brought on by grief, certainly, but many who lose parents do not become meth heads)

      If the admission committee has knowledge of issues that are likely to prevent a student from being admitted to the bar, are they acting ethically in accepting them into the program?

      I want an answer to this one as well. Seems to me the purpose of such committees is to extract money from prospective students and (increasingly) their parents. The unethical part could have been to take her money knowing she would never become a lawyer. If there are valid reasons to earn a law degree that do not involve passing the bar, then no ethics were violated, IMHO.

  6. Sue Dunim

    Is there such​ a thing as rehabilitation?

    If there is, what are the criteria to be used in determining that?

    Finally, balance of probabilities, proof beyond reasonable doubt of rehabilitation, or proof beyond reasonable doubt of non-rehabilitation?

    There are arguments for and against each of these. Most boil down to risk to society vs risk of individual injustice.

    Some are ideological though, the idea that punishment should never cease, or less commonly, that all sins should be forgiven.

    Do we make decisions on pragmatism? Accepting some degree of increased risk to society to prevent an unacceptable degree of injustice? Or do we accept injustice in order to prevent an unacceptable risk to society? Do we try to find a balance, albeit one which is flawed, or do we stand on principle, regardless of harm to individuals or society? Which is more ethical?

    • I have always had a tough time squaring ‘paid his debt to society’ with ‘no guns, no vote, and limited employment opportunities’

      Jack, this might make a good post, examining the history and reasons we restrict those who commit certain crimes in certain ways. I would do it, but feel inadequate to the task, given my lack of understanding of the topic.

  7. Bill fuller

    You should write a piece about this guy
    Guy Padraic Hamilton Smith

  8. With regard to the bank robber, there’s something “honest” about standing in front of someone and taking their money. There’s no deception there. So it doesn’t rub me as a violation of trust. Sure, it violates the trust of the public not to break the law, but I’m more specifically targeting for my thesis that he didn’t have any special duty or enhanced position of trust that was violated.

    Had a banker stolen the money, well, he’s entrusted to protect that money. He has a duty and breaking that trust violates that duty.

    In this case, a registered nurse of 11 years, Tarra Simmons was entrusted to protect the medicine of her facility and was specifically trained on the proper handling of FDA controlled substances. I am making the assumption here that her felony theft conviction is related to stealing prescription drugs from her facility.

    It may seem that I’m doing mental gymnastics here to validate the results, but I feel there’s a consistent pattern so far with the items we’ve been presented.

    Although, I don’t know that I agree with how the Bar Association works and exists. It seems like a protectionist scheme that keeps law schools in business. I’d like to see people who are self-taught be able to take the bar exam.

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