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Before she was a convicted thief. Now she can try to become an attorney

Tarra Simmons, center, with her attorneys, John Strait, left, and Shon Hopwood.
Tarra Simmons, center, with her attorneys, John Strait, left, and Shon Hopwood. Kitsap Sun

In October 2011, Tarra Simmons was seated before a Kitsap County Superior Court judge and sentenced to 30 months in prison for theft and drug crimes.

On Thursday, the 2017 Seattle University Law School graduate was sitting before the Washington State Supreme Court – this time next to a Kitsap Superior Court judge supporting her bid to become a licensed lawyer.

Her attorney argued that Simmons, of Bremerton, should be allowed to take the state bar exam.

Before the end of business the same day, the justices unanimously agreed and ordered that Simmons be allowed to take the test to become a licensed lawyer.

After the hearing, Simmons, 40, thanked the justices and her attorneys.

“I take with me a lot of people who are yearning for that hope of a second chance,” she said. “I always try to tell people I’m not an exceptional person, I’ve just been given exceptional opportunities, opportunities that many people in my community don’t have every day.”

Earlier this year, a state Bar Association board, on a 6-3 vote, denied Simmons’ request to take the test, saying she did not meet the “character and fitness” requirements to practice law because of her criminal history.

Thursday was her chance to make an appeal to the state’s high court. Sitting in support with Simmons during the hearing was Superior Court Judge Kevin Hull.

Between Simmons’ conviction in 2011 and her hearing Thursday, she had accomplished a transformation that essentially made her an example of rehabilitation, her attorney, Shon Hopwood, argued.

Hopwood, now an associate professor at the Georgetown University Law Center, was convicted of bank robbery in 1998 before he changed his life and became a lawyer.

He told the Supreme Court that the question was whether Simmons had sought treatment for the trauma underlying her addictions and demonstrated her commitment to rehabilitation.

“We think the answer to both these questions is a resounding yes,” Hopwood told the justices, later saying: “Character is not static. People change.”

The purpose of the Bar Association’s reviews is to ensure the legal profession admits only those who demonstrate a high level of personal integrity.

Jean McElroy, chief regulatory counsel for the Bar Association, agreed Simmons’ path after prison was “remarkable.”

In addition to graduating from law school, Simmons has been a vocal advocate for prison and school reform, won a prestigious legal fellowship and works at the Public Defender Association in Seattle.

However, McElroy said, the board that turned down her request to take the bar exam found she had gone years without using illegal drugs before her final conviction.

“She did recidivate even though she had five years of sobriety,” McElroy said.

Justices appeared to save their sharpest questions for McElroy, asking whether Simmons had been held to the same standard as men with criminal convictions seeking to take the exam.

Part of Hopwood’s argument was that Simmons faced a reduced likelihood of relapsing in her addiction because of the time she has been gone without relapsing, her commitment to sobriety and particularly the community of support she has built.

“My Facebook feed would tell me that too,” Justice Steven Gonzalez said, commenting on how Simmons’ story has been widely shared on social media.

In the court’s order, the justices found Simmons “has the requisite moral character and fitness to practice law in the state of Washington,” and she “shall be allowed to sit for the Washington bar examination.”

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