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Washington Supremes: Former Prisoner Can Take Bar

by Derek Gilna

Tara Simmons overcame the burden of two previous jail sentences, 20 months in prison, a bankruptcy, and a drug addiction to graduate from law school, magna cum laude. She has clearly turned her life around. However, earning a law degree is only the first step to actually practicing law.

Every state bar association acts as gatekeeper to the roll of individuals actually permitted to practice law and represent clients within the state. The principal way in which it does so is through its character and fitness committee, and Simmons’ application to sit for the Washington bar exam was summarily rejected by the Washington State Bar Association’s Character and Fitness Board by a 6 to 3 vote.

Although the decisions of the Bar Association’s Admissions Committee are confidential, the obvious reason for the rejection was her previous criminal behavior. Simmons stated, “It’s very hard, personally for myself and for my children. [It sends] a strong message to the community that second chances are really, really hard to get.”

After spending three years in law school, Simmons was faced with the prospect of an appeal to the Washington Supreme Court, which has the final word on whether an individual may practice law within the state.

Simmons was understandably concerned that after surmounting all the obstacles that once stood in her way and successfully turning her life around, she might still fail to win the right to practice. In addition, she feared the possibility of having to relive the entire nightmare of the past she had worked so hard to escape. “At first, I was afraid that appealing would mean they were going to shame me in public,” Simmons said.  “I did have problems, but I overcame them. This was the gateway to practice, and I had to go through it.”

But the Washington Supreme Court was not accepting her petition to grill her; rather, it wanted to hear her arguments. Simmons hired former bank robber and 10-year federal prisoner Shon Hopwood, a University of Washington Law School graduate, to represent her before the Supreme Court. Hopwood overcame his own demons to become a gifted jailhouse lawyer, appellate court law clerk, and now a Georgetown Law School professor known for his appellate expertise. He argued on her behalf that “character is not static,” and asked the Court to show that it “cares about rehabilitation and values ... over prior misconduct.”

In yet another encouraging development for former prisoners who aspire to practice law, the Washington Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Simmons’ favor on the same day of the argument. She is scheduled to take the Washington State Bar exam in February 2018. Although not all applications by ex-felons are successful, her success gives hope to other ex-felons who are seeking to turn their lives around and earn the right to practice law. 



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