Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Life After Bar Admission

Mother Jones has a profile of our friend Tarra Simmons 

This story was published in partnership with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit newsroom covering the US criminal justice system. Sign up for their newsletter, or follow The Marshall Project on Twitter and Facebook.

One of the first things Tarra Simmons tells voters when asking for their support isn’t the prestigious fellowships she’s won or the legislation she’s helped write. It’s about the years she spent behind bars.

It’s a story Simmons, a candidate for state representative in Kitsap County, Washington, has shared at countless campaign events, which these days are entirely online: How she lost her car, her house, her nursing license, her voting rights. How after coming home in 2013, most of her minimum-wage paychecks from Burger King were taken to pay the $7,600 she owed in court fees. How she managed to climb out of that life, get a law degree and begin a civil rights nonprofit. And how all of it made her realize that only those who have lived through the system can fully understand how to fix it. 

“I went to prison. It’s not something I’m proud of, but I understand how people end up there,” Simmons said at a May campaign fundraiser via Zoom, her digital background set to a generic corporate lobby. “Our criminal justice system is just a Band-Aid; I want to prevent [incarceration] from happening to begin with.”

Simmons is one of a new crop of political candidates in 2020 for whom being formerly incarcerated isn’t a disqualifier or a political liability. It’s an identity—one they say is vital to represent in state capitals and the hallways of Congress, as lawmakers try to overhaul a system that spends billions to lock up mostly Black and brown people. 

My connection is through my Georgetown colleague

After her release in 2013, Simmons enrolled at Seattle University School of Law. She graduated with honors and won a prestigious Skadden Fellowship for recent grads working in public interest law. Governor Jay Inslee appointed her to lead a new statewide reentry council. But her own criminal history would yet again get in the way.

The “character and fitness board” of the Washington State Bar Association wouldn’t let her take the exam required to be a licensed lawyer, claiming that she minimized her drug abuse in her application. “[S]ome of the attitudes she expressed in the record and at the hearing signal that her acquired fame has nurtured not integrity and honesty, but a sense of entitlement to privileges and recognition beyond the reach of others,” board members wrote. 

Simmons enlisted her friend and mentor Shon Hopwood—another formerly incarcerated attorney and Georgetown Law professor—and appealed the decision to the state’s highest court. 

“They let someone with five armed bank robberies into the bar,” Hopwood said, referring to himself. “Losing my shit is the nicest way to describe how I felt. There are few people on this planet who have overcome the things that she has.” 

The Washington State Supreme Court handed back a unanimous decision the same day they heard arguments. She won. 
I encourage professional responsibility professors to show Shon's oral argument on behalf of Tarra's admission to their classes. (Mike Frisch)


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