The Legal Beat
From Jail To Yale — And Hopefully The Bar
Posted on Friday August 11, 2017
If the law is focused on justice, and justice includes the concepts of forgiveness and rehabilitation, then criminal convictions should not automatically preclude a person from being a lawyer. The inquiry into whether someone should be admitted to the bar despite a criminal history will be a case-by-case determination based on many factors, but here’s my personal leaning in these matters: when in doubt, give the person a second chance.
One of the most well-known cases, mentioned many times in these pages, is that of Shon Hopwood. Hopwood committed several bank robberies and went to federal prison. While in prison, he became a successful “jailhouse lawyer,” filing two certiorari petitions that got granted by the Supreme Court. After serving his time, he wrote a well-received memoir about his experiences; got married, and became a father; graduated from the University of Washington School of Law; and, thanks to a vote of the Supreme Court of Washington, became a member of that state’s bar. He now serves as a professor of law at Georgetown, proof positive that people can achieve great things when given another shot.
Hopwood’s case came to mind when I read about Reginald Dwayne Betts, whose story shares many similarities with Hopwood’s. Betts served a long prison sentence for a carjacking. After his release, Betts also became an author, writing two books of critically acclaimed poetry and a memoir; got married, and had children; and went to law school — specifically, Yale Law School, from which he graduated last year.
What’s next for this convicted criminal turned upstanding citizen? That’s up to the Connecticut Bar, as Bari Weiss explains in the New York Times (via How Appealing):
In February, Mr. Betts passed the Connecticut state bar exam and has been working as a public defender in New Haven, trying, as he put it in a recent essay, “to do something to halt the herding of young black people behind bars.” As his lawyer, William Dow III, has said, “He personifies what people talk about when they speak of second chances.” ….
Last week, Mr. Betts got a letter… referring him to Article VI of the Bar Examining Committee’s regulations, which states that “a record manifesting a significant deficiency in the honesty, trustworthiness, diligence or reliability of an applicant may constitute a basis for denial of admission.” A committee composed of judges and lawyers is now reviewing whether Mr. Betts is of “good moral character.” Because he is a former felon, there isn’t a presumption of fitness to practice law. He has to prove it with “clear and convincing evidence.”
Can he satisfy that standard? Bari Weiss makes an excellent case:
Here’s a piece of advice for the committee: Type “Dwayne Betts” into Google.
His incredible life is proof that a person can truly rehabilitate himself. But the Connecticut bar is sending the opposite message: that a felony is a life sentence.
James Forman Jr., who taught Mr. Betts at Yale, told me that he was “thrilled” to be able to serve as a reference for his application to the bar and that he is “outraged” that his former student wasn’t admitted in the first instance.
“We’re saying to somebody who, 20 years after committing a crime, who has compiled this incredible record, that they still carry with them a stigma and a label saying ‘We are always going to judge you differently.’”
In the words of another YLS faculty member, Noah Messing, Reginald Betts is “a one-man wrecking ball for prejudice against people who often get written off.” And now Betts wants to devote his career to helping similarly situated individuals turn their lives around. The Connecticut Bar should give him that chance.
I’d also add, setting aside the specifics of Betts’s case, that the legal profession should be more welcoming of criminals who want to leave their pasts behind and go forward to do good. Perhaps we’re reacting defensively to all the lawyer jokes and stereotypes about unethical attorneys, but no good is served by barring qualified people who have fully rehabilitated themselves from practicing law (often in ways aimed at helping others avoid their fates).
Let’s be honest: the reputation of the legal profession won’t be jeopardized (or made any worse) by admitting the likes of Shon Hopwood and Reginald Dwayne Betts to practice. If anything, keeping them out just reinforces the stereotypes of lawyers as small-minded, judgmental, and inflexible. Admitting them, in contrast, puts our profession in its best light — as an enterprise deeply committed to justice.
Admit This Ex-Con to the Connecticut Bar [New York Times via How Appealing]
From Jail to Yale: Felon Faces Scrutiny in Bid to Be Lawyer [Associated Press]
David Lat is the founder and managing editor of Above the Law and the author of Supreme Ambitions: A Novel. He previously worked as a federal prosecutor in Newark, New Jersey; a litigation associate at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz; and a law clerk to Judge Diarmuid F. O’Scannlain of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. You can connect with David on Twitter (@DavidLat), LinkedIn, and Facebook, and you can reach him by email at [email protected].