This weekend will mark the end of a “long, hard journey” for Tarra Simmons, a former nurse who overcame substance abuse, criminal convictions and prison time before going on to law school and—only after winning a state Supreme Court case—passing the bar exam in Washington.
On Saturday she will be sworn in as a member of the Washington State Bar.
“Tomorrow it will all be over, so for me it’s kind of like closure of that chapter and the beginning of a new chapter in my life,” Simmons said in an interview on Friday.
Saturday’s swearing-in is scheduled to take place at Seattle University School of Law, where Simmons graduated magna cum laude last year. The ceremony and a reception afterward will feature speeches by three Washington State Supreme Court justices, part of a unanimous court that in November cleared the way for Simmons to take the bar exam.
While Simmons is now on the verge of cementing her place as a practicing lawyer, it was far from a certain outcome, even after she overcame drug addiction, completed her law degree and became the first student from her law school to secure a prestigious Skadden Fellowship. The award, funded by Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, supports law school graduates for a two-year stint in public-interest law. Simmons has spent her fellowship at Seattle’s Public Defender Association, where she’ll remain after she’s sworn in to the bar.
Despite her achievements, the Washington State Bar initially denied Simmons a chance at taking the bar exam based on a determination by its character and fitness board.
Simmons, however, was undeterred. She challenged that determination at the state’s highest court, enlisting the help of Shon Hopwood, a Georgetown law professor who had a troubled past of his own before ascending to the world of legal academia. Hopwood served more than a decade in prison in connection with several armed robberies before leaving prison in 2008 and eventually entering law school at the University of Washington and securing admission to the Washington State Bar.
“We were just shocked when the bar denied her,” Hopwood said in an interview on Friday. “We just couldn’t understand that they didn’t see what everyone else saw about this case, which is that Tarra’s just remarkable, and she wants to be a lawyer to do work for people that don’t often get representation because there’s no money in it.”
Ultimately, the state Supreme Court reversed the bar’s determination and sided with Simmons. In November, it handed down a unanimous ruling that allowed Simmons to sit for the bar. But it wasn’t until April—after Simmons had taken the exam and was awaiting her results—that the state justices released an opinion explaining their decision.
“We ultimately conclude that Simmons’ six-year record of complete sobriety, stable financial position, exemplary conduct, complete candor, and demonstrated ability to recognize and respond appropriately to situations that might lead to relapse is sufficient to persuade the court that she is highly likely to remain on her current path when she becomes a practicing attorney,” Washington Supreme Court Justice Mary Yu wrote in the court’s majority opinion.
Yu is scheduled to give a keynote address at Simmons’ swearing-in, while two other state Supreme Court justices will speak at a reception. Hopwood, who also plans to be in Seattle for the swearing-in ceremony, said the Washington high court reached the right result in her case.
“Society will be better off with Tarra Simmons as an attorney, both because of what she represents and the work she wants to do,” he said.
Simmons, meanwhile, has now cast her gaze beyond her individual case. She’s focused on larger issues of mass incarceration in the U.S. and the many barriers former inmates face when re-entering mainstream society. She said her official entry to the bar will help expand her work at the Public Defender Association. As a newly minted practicing lawyer, she’ll be freed up to take on more individual cases and go into court on behalf of clients without requiring as much supervision.
“I’ll be able to actually get into practicing law and helping individuals,” she said. “Up to now, it’s been systemic policy work.”
While Simmons has clear plans to keep pursuing what she’s adopted as a calling—helping other former inmates resume their lives outside of prison—she also plans to savor her moment. She said she is looking forward to a day of celebration on Saturday.
“It feels like my wedding day. It feels like a dream come true,” she said. “It’s been a long, hard journey.”