Tarra Simmons: From Committing Felonies to Practicing Law

By Keri Blakinger 05/16/18

After three arrests, two controlled buys and one raid in less than a year, Simmons found herself behind bars facing a series of gun, drug, and theft charges.

After three arrests, two controlled buys and one raid in less than a year, Simmons found herself behind bars facing a series of gun, drug and theft charges.
"We affirm this court's long history of recognizing that one's past does not dictate one's future." - From the court ruling

Tarra Simmons had been waiting on the news for weeks.

I knew a lot of people were watching,” she said. “I didn't want to let them down.”

And then on Friday, April 13th, the 40-year-old in recovery was driving with some friends to eastern Washington when she saw the email pop up. She pulled over, logged in, and got the news she’d been hoping for: She’d passed the Washington state bar.

“I found out I killed that exam!” she wrote on Facebook afterward. “In fact, I crushed it and can practice in any state.”

It’s been a long road to get here, a trek filled with courtrooms and jail cells and fueled by hope and second chances.

But she always had faith in where she’d end up.

“I am just so relieved this part of the journey is over and I can finally get back to the work I was called to do,” she told The Fix hours after learning of her exam results.

The hard-won victory comes after more than a year of legal wrangling over her past struggles with addiction and incarceration – and whether they would disqualify her from becoming an attorney.

Initially, Simmons applied to sit for the summer 2017 bar exam. But the Washington State Bar Association turned her down, a move that sparked appeals, oral arguments and a barrage of media attention, including pieces in the New York Times and the American Bar Association Journal.

“I did have problems, but I overcame them,” she told the Times in January. “This was the gateway to practice, and I had to go through it.”

It may have taken a little longer than expected, but she’s finally there.


“I’ve always been an addict,” Simmons said. “I just didn’t know.”

But long before she worked to overcome addiction, Simmons got used to battling obstacles in life. She grew up in poverty, and suffered an abusive childhood.

“My parents are both addicts and I grew up around drugs,” she said. Her mother gave her alcohol for the first time when Simmons was 7. By 13, she’d begun running away from home. At 14, she got pregnant.

“When I had my son I wanted to not be like my parents,” she said, “So I went back to high school and finished four years in one year. And it kind of curbed my addiction.”

There were times when she struggled - a stray arrest, a bout with meth. But still, she pulled things together and became a nurse.

But then, she started taking prescription pain killers after breaking her tailbone. At first, it wasn’t a problem. But slowly, her tolerance increased.

Then the opioids made her tired, so a doctor prescribed her Ritalin to stay awake.

“I was taking them as prescribed,” she said. “So I thought that was just normal. But now I see that as the beginning of another episode of addiction in my life.”

In 2010, her father died and Simmons started spending more time with her family - including some relatives who used meth.

“By Thanksgiving, I was using meth with them every day,” she said.

She started stealing from Walmart and selling her prescriptions to buy meth. In early 2011, she got arrested once and then again a few weeks later. But even when she was released pre-trial, she kept using.

“I remember telling somebody, ‘I think the police are watching me,’ but I didn’t care,” she said. “It didn’t stop me from doing what I was doing because I was invincible.”

After three arrests, two controlled buys and one raid in less than a year, Simmons found herself behind bars facing a series of gun, drug and theft charges.

“I didn’t know much about sentencing, but I was like, ‘Oh my gosh I am so screwed,’” she said.

She ended up with 2.5 years in prison. In the years that followed, her husband filed for divorce, she was forced to declare bankruptcy, and her house went into foreclosure.

But it was behind bars that she seized on a plan to start anew. She started going to meetings, and plotted out a fresh start for herself.

“When I was in prison law students came and helped us with our family law issues and I remember asking one if I could go to law school with a record,” Simmons said. “And she gave me the name of a lawyer.”

Simmons stowed it away in her journal for future use - but it wasn’t until a year and half after her release that she finally made the call.

John Strait, a professor with the Seattle University School of Law, answered.

“She said she was considering applying to law school,” Strait recalled. “She wanted to know if I thought someone would have a chance at becoming a lawyer with her background.”

He told her she could probably get admitted to the bar - but warned that it might not happen right away. 

So Simmons applied to law school, where she became an “extraordinary” student, by Strait’s account. She commuted more than an hour each way by ferry to get to class every day, and ultimately graduated magna cum laude from the Seattle University School of Law, all while being a mother to three kids.

She became the first from her law school to be awarded the Skadden Fellowship, a prestigious program once described by the Los Angeles Times as a “legal Peace Corps,” which has funded her current two-year position at the Public Defender Association. She served as a co-chair on the Washington Statewide Reentry Council and was a dean’s medal recipient at her law school.

By the time she applied to take the bar in 2017, she had more than five years clean.

But the Washington State Bar Association’s Character and Fitness Board turned her down.

It was a tough blow.

“I thought they would see the goodness in my heart,” she said afterward.

Instead, the board ruled that she hadn’t been sober long enough, didn’t show enough remorse and wrote that “her acquired fame has nurtured not integrity and honesty, but a sense of entitlement to privileges and recognition beyond the reach of others.”

With a small army of attorneys, advocates and law professors backing her, Simmons appealed to the state’s Supreme Court.

In a surprise move, the court decided to hear oral arguments in November - and the justices ruled in her favor that same day, determining that she could sit for the February bar exam.

Justice Mary Yu explained the court’s reasoning in a fiery 33-page opinion, panning the board’s criticisms and lauding Simmons’ dedication, talent and “staggering” hard work.

“She has changed her life to a degree that can only be deemed remarkable, both in terms of the efforts she has put forth and the positive results she has achieved,” Yu wrote.

“Simmons has proved by clear and convincing evidence that she is currently of good moral character and fit to practice law. We affirm this court's long history of recognizing that one's past does not dictate one's future. We therefore unanimously grant her application to sit for the bar exam.”

Simmons took to Twitter to celebrate:

“If justice is healing, my heart is finally whole with this right here. Maybe it will be ok one day for women, and even women like me, to be proud of our accomplishments and self-worth.”

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.