Are Felons Fit to Be Lawyers? Increasingly, the Answer Is Yes

Is a felon fit to be a lawyer? Increasingly, the answer appears to be yes.

Tarra Simmons, a former drug addict who had been incarcerated twice, earned a law degree with honors. Then she went through a moral character and fitness review to become a licensed lawyer in Washington State, where she lives.

The licensing panel voted to block her from taking the bar licensing exam. While the committee’s rationale is under seal, it likely had something to do with the fact that she had committed felonies and gone bankrupt.

Ms. Simmons, 40, has appealed the ruling successfully. “At first, I was afraid that appealing would mean they were going to shame me in public,” she said. “I did have problems, but I overcame them. This was the gateway to practice, and I had to go through it.”

Whether people like Ms. Simmons should be allowed to practice law is a hot question these days. Acceptance for those with less-than-impeccable pedigrees seems to be rising.

Since the 1930s, states routinely applied character and fitness tests in order to guard against licensing attorneys who might misuse client funds or who have substance abuse problems. The reviews regularly turn up offenses that applicants neglected to mention on their bar applications.

“We don’t want to be draconian and bar people from having another chance in life. But we don’t want licenses to wind up in the hands of people who can do damage,” said Erica Moeser, the recently retired executive director of the National Conference of Bar Examiners, which conducts applicant background checks for about half the states. The other states conduct their own investigations.

But the standards are subjective and at times unclear.

Christopher Poulos, 35, did a stint in federal prison for cocaine trafficking. Afterward, he was an intern at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and graduated from the University of Maine School of Law in 2016. Then he took Maine’s bar exam and applied to join the state bar.

“After I took the bar, I got a package that had a letter congratulating me on passing the bar exam,” Mr. Poulos said. “And the same package, there was another letter that said: ‘But we are not ready to have you sworn into the bar.’”

At a two-day hearing last year, he was grilled about whether he had severed relations with some prior criminal associates and whether he would disclose the identities of people from whom he obtained drugs over a decade ago. He ended up spending $25,000 going through the process.

Maine’s board of bar examiners voted, 7-1, last June to approve his application, noting that he was a clear example of rehabilitation. Mr. Poulos said he was happy but worried that the standards have been applied inconsistently.

“You could have a panel giving a unanimous ‘yes’ one year, and, the next year, a unanimous ‘no,’” he said. He has since moved to Washington State and runs the Statewide Reentry Council, created in 2016 to help prison inmates return to the community.

Ms. Simmons had an abusive childhood and was homeless by age 13. After being convicted of drug offenses, the mother of two was incarcerated for 20 months. Behind bars, her debts mounted and she lost her home to foreclosure. She entered drug treatment in prison.

After her release in 2013, Ms. Simmons graduated magna cum laude from Seattle University School of Law. She later won a fellowship from Skadden Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, a law firm based in New York, to spend two years providing civil legal services to the poor.

After the bar licensing panel rejected her application last spring, she appealed to the Washington State Supreme Court. It agreed to hear her case — the first such character and fitness screening case on its docket in more than three decades.

Ms. Simmons hired Shon R. Hopwood to represent her. Mr. Hopwood is an ex-felon, too. Convicted of a series of bank robberies in Nebraska, he spent a decade in federal prison, where he began writing legal appeals. After his release, he graduated from the University of Washington Law School in Seattle and later clerked for a federal judge. He now teaches law at Georgetown University.

Arguing before the state Supreme Court at a one-day hearing last November, Mr. Hopwood acknowledged Ms. Simmons’s prior misconduct. But, he noted, “character is not static.” He urged the justices to decide that it “cares about rehabilitation and values that over prior misconduct.”

The same day, the court voted 8-0 that Ms. Simmons should be eligible to take the bar licensing exam. She is scheduled to take the test in February. When she is not studying for the bar, she is working with Mr. Poulos to help inmates re-enter their communities.