The question on the law school application wasn’t what some would call a good one:
In 2005, David Powers, a CPA and a summa cum laude college graduate with a master’s degree, filled out an admissions application in which he was asked whether he had ever been “charged with, pleaded guilty to, or been found guilty of any crime, offense or violation” apart from minor traffic violations.
The problem is that “charged with, pleaded guilty to, or been found guilty of any crime,” is phrased in the disjunctive. Does that mean pick one, any one of which will do? Does that mean go with the one that carries the most substantive weight? One would think a law school could do a better job of asking a question.
But David Powers sounds like quite a catch. Smart guy, hard-working, and more interestly, pulled himself out of the abyss. The sort of stuff that legends are made of. So when he applied to St. John’s Law School he was accepted.
On his application, Powers admitted he had been arrested in New Jersey in July 1999 “shortly after a drug deal” but agreed to plead guilty to third-degree possession of a controlled dangerous substance.
In a supplemental statement submitted with the application, Powers called the arrest “the best day of [his] life” because it ultimately caused him to get sober and pull his life together.
And to its credit, he was admitted by St. John’s Law School.
Powers enrolled at the school in the fall of 2006 as a part-time student without further queries from the school. According to news reports, he received a $20,000 scholarship and ranked third in his night program class.
But Powers made a grievous error. He took a leave of absence after three semesters to take a job in Hong Kong as Chief Financial Officer for a $2 billion investment fund, and while there, decided to seek an advance ruling on whether his drug conviction would impact his ability to be admitted. As part of this, he was asked to provide a letter from his law school.
Powers asked for a letter from St. John’s to submit with the petition. In his request, he included a letter that he intended to later send to the Second Department.
In that letter, Powers said he originally faced charges including second-degree possession of LSD with the intent to distribute and possession of Ecstasy with the intent to distribute but the charges were reduced in the plea deal.
Boom. St. John’s refused, and instead demanded the he provide a “full accounting” of his criminal conduct. Powers did, told the whole sordid tale, no doubt assuming that the panel of four deans who questioned him would understand and appreciate his error and redemption.*
In September 2010, the school rescinded admission, pointing to “material omissions and misrepresentations involving criminal charges that had been brought against [him].” In particular, it noted that Powers now acknowledged his guilt in distributing the narcotics.
Note that they didn’t just dismiss him from St. John’s after taking his tuition for three semesters, but rescinded his admission, as if he was never there. At this moment, it’s likely weighing heavily that they went far beyond the offense of conviction, deep into the crevices of all bad acts he committed during his drug addiction. And Powers, believing these four deans to be people of good will, likely expected at least understanding, if not some degree of grudging respect for what he accomplished. And what he accomplished was nothing short of magnificent.
Nope. He was dead to them. And he was dead to them because they chose to kill him. Slaughter him. Cut him into tiny pieces and make him disappear, as if he never existed. Academic empathy isn’t what it appears. At least not for former drug addicts who have overcome their addiction and fought their way back.
David Powers brought an Article 78 (for you unfortunate outliers, this is New York’s statutory embodiment of the various writs available at common law) to annul the decision. The Second Department upheld the decision of St. John’s Law School to destroy David Powers.
Despite the petitioner’s subsequent disclosure, under the circumstances presented here, and in light of the true nature of the petitioner’s prior criminal activity, the law school’s determination to rescind his acceptance was not arbitrary and capricious, and does not warrant judicial intervention (Citations omitted).
Since the petitioner disclosed, subsequent to his admission, that he was originally charged with and was guilty of distributing, and possessing with intent to distribute, a controlled dangerous substance, we do not consider the penalty imposed to be “so disproportionate to the offense . . . as to be shocking to one’s sense of fairness” (citations omitted), thus constituting an abuse of discretion as a matter of law.
What’s “shocking to one’s sense of fairness” is an extremely nebulous determination. To a court that affirms lengthy prison sentences for drugs, David Powers may not be as sympathetic as he is to others, like me for instance.
The ruling that it’s not an arbitrary and capricious decision to “disappear” David Powers may be correct; they had their reasons, though their reasons would have been better addressed had St. John’s Law School proven itself up to the task of asking a better question on its application for admission. But hey, it’s a law school, and nobody can expect quality questions, right?
But the damage inflicted on David Powers, a guy who in most walks of life would be applauded, a poster-boy for redemption and the struggle to overcome youthful addiction to make something of himself, to assume a role as a law-abiding member of society, is just inexcusable. The question isn’t whether St. John’s can get away with this conduct, but why would it want to?
St. John’s Law School’s treatment of David Powers is disgusting, cruel and disgraceful.
* Ironically, Powers was unaware during the course of this that his New Jersey record had since been expunged.