The state Supreme Court, in a moving and powerful decision issued Thursday, has laid out its thinking in allowing a woman with a troubled history of drugs and crime to become a lawyer.
Nearly five months ago, the state Supreme Court ruled that a Seattle University law-school graduate who overcame a history of crime and substance abuse could take the state bar exam.
In doing so, the nine-member court unanimously rejected the recommendation of a Washington State Bar Association board to deny Tarra Simmons that opportunity.
The ruling cleared the way for Simmons, 40, to take the bar exam in late February. She is to get the results on April 13.
But it wasn’t until Thursday that the court provided its reasons for the decision.
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In a 33-page opinion, Justice Mary Yu laid out the court’s thinking in the formal, stilted language of the law before articulating its simple conclusion on the power of redemption:
“We affirm this court’s long history of recognizing that one’s past does not dictate one’s future.”
As described in the opinion, Simmons was born to parents with substance-abuse problems. She grew up in poverty, surrounded by crime. A victim of sexual violence, she was homeless at times and, as a juvenile, took part in criminal conduct that included theft, possession of stolen property and second-degree assault.
As an adult, she struggled with addiction. Her criminal history included an assault conviction in 2001 and convictions in 2011 for organized retail theft, unlawful possession of a firearm and possession of controlled substances.
She served more than three years in jail and prison, and underwent two bankruptcies and foreclosure on her home. Her nursing license was placed on probationary status.
Simmons said Thursday she was “happy and excited” by the breadth of the ruling.
Simmons said she has been doing legislative work for the Public Defender Association in Seattle and hopes, if she passes the bar exam, to start handling cases.
Eventually, Simmons said, she wants to work on appellate cases helping people overcome barriers to re-entry after serving prison time.
In her opinion, Yu wrote that Simmons began “meaningful treatment” while in prison and “changed her life to a degree that can only be deemed remarkable, both in terms of the efforts she has put forth and the positive results she has achieved.”
Simmons has been sober for six years, according to the opinion. She has been candid about her past, shown remorse and sought to make amends by acting as an “outspoken advocate” for legal aid, focused on people who have served time and face barriers after being released.
At Seattle University, Simmons became the first student in the law school’s history to be awarded a two-year public interest fellowship from a prestigious foundation. She graduated magna cum laude as a dean’s medal recipient last year.
During five internships, Simmons “excelled and exhibited consistently ethical behavior,” Yu wrote, citing letters from her supervisors and colleagues.
Despite Simmons’ “about-face life choices,” the Washington State Bar Association’s Character and Fitness Board, in a 6-3 vote, recommended that she not be allowed to seek a license to practice law, according to the opinion.
Although Simmons had proved her ability to perform legal tasks and skills and communicate her knowledge, she had failed to demonstrate her ability to exercise good judgment and conduct herself with a high degree of degree of honesty, integrity and trustworthiness in her various dealings, the board found. She also had failed to conduct herself in a manner that engenders respect for the law and the rules of professional conduct, the board concluded.
On Nov. 16, the court disagreed, granting Simmons’ request to take the bar exam.
In Thursday’s opinion, the court rejected the board’s concern that Simmons had shown an unwarranted sense of entitlement because of her achievements. Simmons “has attained privileges and recognition beyond the reach of others due to her hard work,” Yu wrote.
“She earned everything she has through dedication, talent, and a staggering amount of hard work,” Yu added. “Simmons rightly takes pride in her extraordinary accomplishments, but there is no evidence that she expects special treatment.”
Yu noted that one of Simmons’ attorneys, Shon Hopwood, had been allowed by the board, after excelling in law school, to take the state’s bar exam in 2014 after serving a 10-year prison sentence for bank robbery and using a firearm.
“Both Hopwood and Simmons are living examples of a person’s ability to change if he or she has the will and opportunity to do so,” Yu wrote.
Simmons has shown she is of good moral character and fit to practice law, the court concluded while emphasizing that it didn’t believe the bar board acted arbitrarily or in bad faith.
“We simply disagree with the Board’s recommendation in this particular case,” Yu wrote.
Annette Clark, dean of the Seattle University law school, said in a statement Thursday that Simmons was admitted four years ago with full knowledge of her past mistakes.
Simmons has “proven over and over again that we made the right decision in giving her a second chance,” Clark said. “The opinion released by the Washington Supreme Court … thoughtfully articulates the reasons why she should be allowed the opportunity to take the bar exam and become a practicing attorney.
“It is precisely Tarra’s lived experiences and the way in which she has made restitution and rebuilt her life that make her such a powerful and passionate advocate for justice-involved individuals who are seeking to re-enter society. I look forward to the proud day when Tarra can take her place within the Washington State Bar,” Clark said.
The state bar association, in a statement, said it appreciated the court’s “affirmation that the process worked as it should.”
“We wish Ms. Simmons all the best,” the statement said.