Washington Supreme Court Publishes Opinion Unanimously Upholding Formerly Incarcerated Law Graduate Tarra Simmons’ Right to Sit for the State Bar Exam

by | Apr 5, 2018

On April 5, 2018 the Washington State Supreme Court published their unanimous opinion overturning the recommendation of the Bar Association’s Character and Fitness Board to deny formerly incarcerated law graduate Tarra Simmons’ application to sit for the Bar Exam. Ms. Simmons is the Executive Director of Civil Survival as well as the Co-Chair of Washington’s Statewide Reentry Council. The Court initially heard oral argument appealing the Board’s decision on November 16, 2017 and issued a very rare same-day ruling in Ms. Simmons’ favor later that afternoon. The Court’s written opinion details Ms. Simmons’ difficult upbringing and early adulthood while recognizing that, through hard work and determination she has convincingly demonstrated rehabilitation through her academic achievements as well as her advocacy for others.

Tarra Simmons grew up under very challenging circumstances that included emotional and sexual trauma, a history of drug use and eventual incarceration. She did not have access to counseling or other resources necessary for her to achieve rehabilitation. It was not until she was sent to prison that her healing was able to begin. As the Court noted:

. . . when Simmons was sent to prison in late 2011, she began
engaging in meaningful treatment for her trauma and addiction for the first time.
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. In re Bar Application of Simmons, No. 201,671-5, at 4.

The Court went on to recognize Ms. Simmons’ many achievements following her release:

Simmons attended the Seattle University School of Law and became the first student in her school’s history to be awarded a two-year public interest fellowship from the Skadden Foundation. She graduated magna cum laude as a dean’s medal recipient in May 2017, and letters from faculty and classmates further make it clear that Simmons was a substantial asset to the entire law school community. Letters from her supervisors and colleagues also unequivocally state that Simmons excelled and exhibited consistently ethical behavior in the five legal internships she completed during law school, in addition to the volunteer and advocacy work that she undertook for no course credit. In re Bar Application of Simmons, No. 201,671-5, at 4-5.

The Court rejected the Bar Association’s various arguments seeking to deny Ms. Simmons the opportunity to sit for the Bar Exam, writing:

We hold that Simmons has shown by clear and convincing evidence that she is currently of good moral character and she is fit to practice law, Simmons has spent enough time in recovery, and she accepts full responsibility for her prior conduct. She has consistently demonstrated remorse, self-awareness, fortitude, and an unwavering dedication to earning and maintaining the respect of the profession. Her success during law school, both academically and in supervised internships, amply demonstrates she is worthy to sit for the bar. Indeed, given the substantial obstacles that she has overcome, her success is an even stronger indicator of her abilities than it would be for the average law student. As noted by Dean -Annette E. Clark of the Seattle University School of Law, unlike Simmons, “[m]any of our law students have lived lives of privilege, and so when we attest to their character and fitness to practice law, it is under circumstances where they have not been tested in any meaningful sense by circumstances such as poverty, substance abuse, and domestic violence.” Memorandum, Attach. B at 114. Simmons, meanwhile, has overcome all of those circumstances and more. Her remarkable achievements would simply not be possible without her extraordinary abilities and relentless hard work. In re Bar Application of Simmons, No. 201,671-5, at 30-31.

The Court concluded:

Simmons has proved by clear and convincing evidence that she is currently of good moral character and fit to practice law. We affirm this court’s long history of recognizing that one’s past does not dictate one’s future. We therefore unanimously grant her application to sit for the bar exam. In re Bar Application of Simmons, No. 201,671-5, at 32.

Civil Survival applauds the Court’s decision and supports the many ways that Tarra continues to contribute to Civil Survival and the greater Justice Involved community.  [Read the Court’s full opinion]