Monday, January 9, 2017

Ohio To Hear Bar Admission Argument

Kathleen Mahoney tells the story of a bar admission case up for argument in the Ohio Supreme Court on January 11

In re Application of Shamir L. Coll, Case no. 2016-1243
Board of Commissioners on Character and Fitness

The Board of Commissioners on Character and Fitness recommends that the Ohio Supreme Court reject a current application from Shamir L. Coll of Lorain to take the bar examination to enter the practice of law. Pointing to Coll’s answers to certain questions on his application and his testimony during a hearing about the matter, the board concludes that Coll didn’t demonstrate the necessary character and fitness to take the bar exam. The board suggests that he be allowed to reapply for the July 2019 bar examination.

Applicant Mentions KKK on Forms Reporting Traffic Incidents
Coll graduated in 2015 from the University of Toledo College of Law and applied to take the February 2016 bar exam. A question on the application asked whether the candidate has been charged in the past 10 years with any moving vehicle violations that weren’t alcohol- or drug-related, and then requires the applicant to fill out a form for each incident.

In his response, Coll noted that he had received speeding tickets in “many cities, many counties, OH”; listed only one date for the incidents; and, for the description of the incidents, wrote “racism mostly.” Staff in the Supreme Court’s bar admissions office contacted Coll in early February 2016 to alert him that his answers weren’t specific enough for the multiple incidents. Coll resubmitted the traffic violation forms, this time identifying four separate incidents between July 2008 and July 2012. He listed the “final disposition” as “speeding” for three of the incidents and “stop sign” for the fourth. For his description of the incidents, he wrote “KKK … their city is worthless,” “KKK … maybe I was speeding,” “KKK … they wanted to be me,” and “KKK … They hate being them.” Coll also left other lines on the forms blank.

Board Holds Hearing, Recommends Preventing Applicant from Taking Exam
At a hearing in late April 2016 before a three-member panel of the board, Coll stated that by giving his full name, his Social Security number, and his Ohio driver’s license number he thought the board had enough information to look into the citations. He also maintained that the board breached its contractual duty to conduct an investigation of him in return for his application fee. As far as the references to the Ku Klux Klan, Coll testified that he wanted to “flex his legal rights” under the First Amendment to express himself as an individual. He added that his previous driving record was inconsequential to evaluating his overall character.

The board notes in its report to the Court that an applicant has a “duty to cooperate and to provide accurate and complete answers to all requested information” and that Coll “set out to sabotage the application process” with his provocative responses.

“Not only do his constitutional arguments lack rigor, his facile exercise – at the expense of the Bar Admissions Committee and the Board of Commissioners – demonstrates a woefully inadequate appreciation for the seriousness of the legal profession and the bar admissions process, so much so that the [p]anel concludes that his immaturity (or egotism … or both), combined with a dramatic lack of judgment, render him currently unfit to practice law,” the report states. “His testimony does not permit the [p]anel to conclude that his conduct justifies the trust of clients, adversaries, courts and others with respect to the professional duties owed to them.”

Applicant Argues Responses Were Within Free-Speech Rights
Coll has objected to the character and fitness board’s conclusions and recommendation. Because of the free-speech rights guaranteed in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Coll asserts that the board can’t deny his character, fitness, and moral qualifications to practice law based on his comments about racism on the traffic violation forms. He cites several U.S. Supreme Court decisions involving applicants who were prohibited from taking the bar exam in their states because they declined to answer questions about their connections to communist organizations or to divulge other political affiliations. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the denials by the states. Coll concludes from these rulings that “states cannot chill applicants First Amendment rights” to express themselves on their bar applications.

He also contends that any omissions on his application may be grounds for disapproval only if the omissions are relevant. The admissions committee must weigh several factors when determining the importance of an applicant’s prior conduct, he states, explaining that his traffic convictions occurred when he was young, from 17 to 21 years old; the offenses were minor misdemeanors; he has been rehabilitated given that he has had no traffic violations in the past four years; and he has made positive social contributions through his work as a legal intern at the Toledo Municipal Court. His supervisor there, a prosecuting attorney, spoke before the board’s panel of his competent work and qualities showing strong character and fitness to practice law, he notes.

In addition, he argues that the proposed delay until 2019 for him to reapply to take the bar exam is harsher than the sanctions approved in similar cases. In an example he gave, an applicant was required to wait three years to reapply because he didn’t disclose that he hadn’t graduated from law school and had been charged with significant traffic violations, including drunk or drugged driving and leaving the scene of an accident. Coll argues these issues are much more serious concerns than those raised in his application, yet he is receiving the same three-year ban before he can reapply. Coll points to another case in which the applicant failed to report three of four alcohol-related offenses, but only had to wait one year before he could reapply.

Coll asks the Court to approve the bar exam application he submitted in 2016 and to let him to take the exam in 2017.

Bar Association Waives Oral Argument
The Toledo Bar Association, which in January 2016 initially approved Coll’s application to take the bar exam, didn’t file a brief in this case and, as a result, will not be permitted to participate in oral argument.

(Mike Frisch)

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