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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

Supreme Court Gives Honors Law Graduate With Criminal Past Second Chance

The Washington State Supreme Court has decided that it believes in second chances and rehabilitation in a case involving a former drug addict who transformed into a promising future attorney.

The high court ordered that Tarra Simmons of Bremerton, an honors law school graduate with a criminal past, can take the bar exam to become a licensed lawyer.

“I’m just overwhelmed,” Simmons said shortly after receiving news of the order. “I went to my knees crying because it’s been such a long and painful journey. “

The one-page order issued late Thursday and signed by Chief Justice Mary Fairhurst followed a rare character and fitness hearing before the justices earlier in the day. It reverses a previous decision by the Washington State Bar Association to not let Simmons take the exam.

Simmons appealed that decision with the help of Shon Hopwood, a Georgetown University law professor who also has a criminal past. Hopwood spent more than a decade in federal prison for a series of bank robberies in his home state of Nebraska in the late 1990s. He was recently featured on 60 Minutes.

“I’m pretty certain it’s the first time a former bank robber has argued to let somebody else in the club,” Hopwood quipped outside the Supreme Court. Hopwood is a member of the Washington state bar and attended law school at the University of Washington.

This is the first time since 1984 that the Washington Supreme Court has publicly taken up the case of a first-time applicant to the Washington bar who was rejected for character and fitness reasons. Simmons’ attorneys hope her case establishes new guidelines for the licensing of lawyers with criminal backgrounds.

“I think it would engender great respect for communities that are overrepresented in the justice system but very much underrepresented in the legal profession to know that this court cares about rehabilitation and values that over prior misconduct,” Hopwood said in his closing statement during the oral argument of the case Thursday.

The court will issue a formal opinion detailing its reasoning at a later date.

In arguments before the justices, Hopwood said the Washington State Bar Association’s character and fitness board erred when it voted 6 to 3 last spring not to allow Simmons to take the bar exam.

“It is undisputed here that all of her prior misconduct, the crimes, the incarceration and the bankruptcies all resulted from untreated trauma and drug addiction,” Hopwood said.

Beginning in 2011, Simmons spent 20 months in prison for delivery of Oxycodone, possession of marijuana with intent to deliver and unlawful possession of a firearm. Simmons said she started using methamphetamine and abusing prescription drugs after her father died in 2010.

When she was released from prison in 2013, Simmons’ home was in foreclosure and she went bankrupt. She got a job at Burger King.

But her time in prison, and exposure to prison legal aid lawyers, had sparked a dream of becoming an attorney herself. In 2014, Simmons was admitted to Seattle University’s law school.

She graduated magna cum laude in May, received a prestigious national Skadden Award and was appointed by Governor Jay Inslee to two task forces, including one focused on helping prison inmates transition back to the community.

But it wasn’t enough for the bar association to admit her. Under at times withering questioning, the justices asked the attorney for the bar association, Jean McElroy, to defend the decision to reject Simmons’ application to take the bar exam.

McElroy told the justices that Simmons had failed to disclose in her written application her juvenile criminal record, which had been sealed by the courts, and a previous period of meth use in 2005.

“The entire record of her history didn’t even become clear until the course of the hearing,” McElroy said.

But in an exchange with Justice Steve Gonzalez, she also acknowledged Simmons’ rehabilitation.

“She is very clearly on the right trajectory,” McElroy said. “You’d agree it’s remarkable wouldn’t you?” Gonzalez asked. “It is remarkable and the Board acknowledged that as well in making its findings,” McElroy replied.

After the hearing, Simmons stood on the steps of the Temple of Justice flanked by her attorneys and said she hopes her case serves as inspiration for others with criminal backgrounds.

“I know that I take with me a lot of people who are yearning for that hope of a second chance,” she said.

“There literally has been no examination of this process until this case since 1984,” said John Strait, an emeritus professor of law at Seattle University who is part of Simmons’ legal team.

Simmons plans to take the Washington state bar exam in February.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."