The Washington State Supreme Court says that if you once struggled with substance abuse problems, you arent automatically disqualified from taking the bar.
The Washington Supreme Court says that if you once struggled with substance abuse problems you aren't automatically disqualified from taking the bar. COSMONAUT/GETTY IMAGES

Earlier this year, the Washington Supreme Court reversed the Washington State Bar Association's decision to prohibit a woman named Tarra Simmons from taking the bar exam. Simmons had graduated from the Seattle University School of Law, served on gubernatorial public defense councils, and won prestigious legal scholarships. Today, Simmons serves as the executive director of Civil Survival, a nonprofit to mobilize voter turnout among people who were formerly incarcerated. Nevertheless, Simmons' application for the bar also came four years after a 20-month stay in prison for drug and firearm possession charges and six years of sobriety.

The Washington State Bar Association had originally ruled that Simmons failed the "good moral character" test for bar applicants because of her criminal history. On top of that, they argued that because Simmons did not use the word "sorry" enough during her board hearing, she was "entitled."

In a written ruling issued today that followed the Supreme Court's oral ruling last November, all nine Supreme Court judges unanimously disagreed. The Supreme Court also reaffirmed a position that has implications for other people with histories of drug abuse and involvement in the criminal justice system: "that there is no categorical exclusion of an applicant who has a criminal or substance abuse history."

The Washington Supreme Court's written opinion offers compelling insight into Simmons' life and the way society has evolved in thinking about people who experience childhood trauma.

The judges write, for example, that Simmons was born into poverty and to parents with substance abuse problems, and was a survivor of sexual violence as a child and teenager. She ran away from home at 13, at which point she started to experience homelessness.

"However, when Simmons was sent to prison in late 2011, she began engaging in meaningful treatment for her trauma and addiction for the first time," the Supreme Court decision reads. "Since then, she has 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."

The Supreme Court likened a categorical exclusion for people with similar backgrounds as Simmons to "moral character" rules that once banned applicants on the basis of race, gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. "But just as we have evolved in our understanding of humanity, we have also grown in our understanding of what makes a bar applicant a person of good moral character worthy of admission," the court wrote.

On top of that, the court forcefully rejected WSBA's characterization of Simmons' efforts to apply for the bar as "entitled."

The entire section is worth reading:

The Board believed that Simmons demonstrated a "sense of entitlement to privileges and recognition beyond the reach of others" based on her inquiry as to whether her application needed to be referred to the Board and based on the public recognition that she has received for her remarkable success. We cannot agree with the Board's assessment.

We wholeheartedly agree that Simmons has attained privileges and recognition beyond the reach of others due to her hard work.

(Footnote: At oral argument, bar counsel contended that Simmons used the word "sorry" only once at her hearing before the Board, evincing a lack of remorse. Wash. Supreme Court oral argument, supra, at 44 min., 50 sec. We summarily reject the premise that this word count is an appropriate basis on which to evaluate Simmons' moral character. We therefore also decline to draw any inferences from the number of times that Simmons referred to her Skadden fellowship or the Skadden Foundation at her hearing.)

The Supreme Court was careful not to make a prescription about the appropriate length of time someone must be out of prison and sober for them to be considered a worthy candidate for the bar. Instead, they wrote, each applicant must be judged individually.

That said, the court also recognized social science showing that "86 percent of addicts who maintain their sobriety for at least 5 years will never relapse, but that there is no further substantial decrease in the likelihood of relapse after 10 years have passed."

The entire opinion is worth reading. Check it out here.