Short Take: Admit Dwayne Betts

As a strong believer in the virtue of integrity within the legal profession, the refusal of the Connecticut bar’s character and fitness committee to approve of Dwayne Betts’ admission to the bar is an outrage. Admit him.

In 1996, when Reginald Dwayne Betts was being sentenced to nine years in prison for a carjacking, the judge handing down the ruling told the 16 year old: “I don’t have any illusions that the penitentiary is going to help you, but you can get something out of it if you want to.”

The judge probably had, at best, a high school equivalency diploma in mind for Mr. Betts. Mr. Betts had bigger ambitions.

I have no clue what he had in mind, but I know what he’s done with his life since.

After his release in 2005, he wrote two books of critically acclaimed poetry and a memoir. He got a B.A. and an M.F.A., and became a Radcliffe fellow at Harvard. Last May, he graduated from Yale Law School. Oh, and along the way, he became a husband and a father to two boys; tellingly, this is the first accomplishment he lists on his website’s biography page.

Commit a crime and do your time. But once done, you’ve paid your debt to society. Unfortunately, this is one of the basic concepts that’s been bastardized, as reflected in sex offender registries. When the dude who suffers is on the list of favored folk, then it’s remembered. When not, then it’s rationalized away. For some of us, it has always been a core belief. Without it, there is no legitimate justification for the prosecution of crime or the imposition of sentence. If conviction means life in every instance, then the system is a farce. That may be fine with you, but not with me.

Last week, Mr. Betts got a letter saying as much, 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.”

It’s not unfair that a former felon is held to stricter standards. What is unfair is that he’s held to impossible standards. If Dwayne Betts hasn’t proven, in spades, that he’s not only of “good moral character,” but far better moral character than many of the scumbags populating the bar, then there is no hope for the “honesty, trustworthiness, diligence or reliability” of applicants.

Before the advent of social media, I believed that most lawyers possessed integrity. Some were smarter than others. Some had better skills (often far better). A few were dangerously inept, and there was a small group that was plain old dishonest. I was wrong. I see a great many liars these days, some in furtherance of their good intentions, some just scammers out for a buck. The legal profession is not the bastion of integrity I believed. It can be lazy, self-serving and full of shit. I expect it to get worse, as circle jerks validate the lies they tell themselves to justify their feelz.

But Dwayne Betts isn’t deemed worthy of joining this cabal of intellectual midgets and integrity-challenged scoundrels? If anybody has suffered through the dark side of life to come out shining, it’s Dwayne Betts. Like Shon Hopwood. Like David Powers.

Not only have these individuals earned their place in the bar, not only will the profession be far better with them, but the much harder question is what the legal profession has done to deserve people like this, who have actually experienced the dark side, fought their way out of it, and returned to make the profession better. The mopes who got a pass because nobody caught them and wrap themselves up in pompous self-righteousness are lawyers. Yet the people who fought to overcome adversity get treated like unworthy pariahs. It’s nuts.

Connecticut Bar, admit Dwayne Betts. You don’t deserve him, but he has graced you with his willingness to join. You should kiss his ass for doing so, as he’s better than you deserve.

35 comments on “Short Take: Admit Dwayne Betts

  1. B. McLeod

    I didn’t see this as a signal that they won’t admit him. It is, after all, CT. However, the file must be papered (clearly and convincingly).

  2. Sacho

    How do you go about validating the “presumption of fitness to practice law”? Save a few kittens stuck in trees? Help a few grannies cross the road? How is he supposed to prove he’s of “good moral character”? I suppose the Committee are fans of Justice Potter Stewart.

  3. Turk

    And if anyone from the CT character and fitness committee happens to stumble in here, it’s worth adding that New York saw fit to readmit former Chief Judge Sol Wachtler who had been disbarred after his 1993 conviction on federal charges including blackmail and extortion.

    People have have fallen and then redeemed themselves are oft-times of vastly superior character than others.

    1. SHG Post author

      This is a critical point: it’s easy for people who have never been tested to be presumed of good moral character. But we know with certainty that those who were tested, failed, and redeemed themselves are.

      1. Kirk Taylor

        I shall now attemt to grace you with an anecdote unrelated to law:

        25 years in the Navy submarine service proved your point eminently. When the shit hit the fan…fire, flooding, masturbation injury… You never knew who would step up. Who would hold their shit together in the center of a snowstorm. It was rarely the day to day superstar or academic genius.

        This was a mainstay of my instruction when training nuclear operators and the inevitable, “that guy will kill someone if we let him be a nuke” refrain was spouted because the guy struggled with integrals. (Always from the mouths of those who had not yet been to sea).

        You don’t know until you’ve been tested.

        1. SHG Post author

          I am resisting the urge to do the “In the Navy” vid out of respect for Admiral Rickover, but don’t push me.

    2. wilbur

      Judge Sol Wachter is credited with coining a famous phrase:
      “Wachtler was famously quoted by Tom Wolfe in the 1987 novel The Bonfire of the Vanities that “a grand jury would ‘indict a ham sandwich,’ if that’s what you wanted.’ ” The Gospel of Wikipedia

      I have only a superficial knowledge of the facts of Wachter’s offenses or rehabilitation since. But the offenses indicate a serious moral turpitude, committed when he had already reached a position of prominence and in a position of trust. He seriously betrayed that trust..

      What Betts accomplished is pretty damn impressive.

      1. SHG Post author

        Not only did you tell us what us NY lawyers already knew, but you cited it for us. We owe you a deep debt of gratitude. I remember telling that story to Wolfe back in ’84 when Turk, Jim and I were having lunch with Tommy at Katz’s Deli.

  4. Richard Kopf

    Scott,

    When the crime involves violence as it apparently did with Mr. Betts (carjacking and nine years in prison) and with Shon Hopwood (armed bank robbery and 12 years in prison), it does not bother me one whit that such a bar applicant will be forced to jump through hoops to get his ticket to ride. From what I can tell, Mr. Betts will easily jump through those rings and by doing so he will place an exclamation mark on his redemption story.

    As you know, I wear my “mean ass” moniker with pride. That said, I wish Mr. Betts (and you) all the best.

    RGK

    1. SHG Post author

      It’s not as if he didn’t have to jump through hoops when he first filled out the form before coming before C&F. I waltzed through He did the tap dance. Next up is the cha cha? Ballywood after that? How many ways must he prove he can dance?

  5. Marty

    Nice human interest story. It appears Mr. Betts is unlikely to fail to meet the clear and convincing standard. I have been through the fitness and character hearing process and prevailed, albeit with a less noble history of post-infraction accomplishments than Mr. Betts. The more compelling cases (more worthy of outrage) are those (favored or unfavored) without the pedigree/elite degree, who like Mr. Betts, made a mistake, made their way through the maze, are committed helping others in the less economically lucrative fields of practice, and nonetheless fail to convince the hearing committee of their fitness. Meanwhile, as you suggest, post-admission character and fitness behavior by many of our esteemed colleagues is frequently embarrassing, amoral (if not immoral), and illegal. I am now stepping down from my soap box.

  6. Erik H

    OK, so he hasn’t gone to jail since 2005. Neither have most folks. He has committed a pretty violent crime, which most folks have not: that should not be a bar to proceeding with society but it may well justify a much closer look.

    He went to some good schools (though given the odd admission standards of the current day this is more probably “as a result of” his conviction/release, and not “despite” his conviction/release.) That is nice, but says nothing about morality one way or the other.

    He wrote some poetry. That is nice, but says nothing about morality one way or the other.

    He wrote a memoir. I haven’t read it; maybe this is all about morality?

    From this post I don’t understand why he has “proven, in spades, that he’s not only of good moral character, but far better moral character than many of the scumbags populating the bar”? What proof are you talking about?

    The NYT article says
    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, <b<that they still carry with them a stigma and a label saying ‘We are always going to judge you differently.’”
    Damn right. That is a relatively rare and relatively violent crime. You have a right to move on with your life, but if you don’t want to be socially remembered as “someone who was a carjacker,” don’t jack the damn car.

      1. Greg Prickett

        Scott, you’re wrong here. Mr. Betts committed a violent felony, which brings his character and fitness into question. The Bar has an obligation to the public to inquire into this, and to compel Mr. Betts to show that he is fit to practice law. Based on everything here, he’ll get past that hurdle, but it is because of his own past actions that the hurdle is even there.

        1. SHG Post author

          Of course he has an obligation, Greg. The question is whether he has satisfied that obligation with his submissions and C&F interview.

        2. Brian Cowles

          Mr. Prickett,

          Respectfully, I have to disagree with you on this one. According to Article VI-2, there must be a problem with “honesty, trustworthiness, diligence or reliability”. Which one of those four is impacted by a twenty-year-old conviction for carjacking?

          1. SHG Post author

            A felony is, and should be a red flag. The question is what it takes to get past it, not whether it should be ignored. My contention is that Betts has proffered more than sufficient evidence of his character and fitness to overcome his conviction, not that the C&F should overlook his conviction.

            I don’t think Greg actually disagrees, but I’m unclear what more Greg thinks needs to be done by Betts to demonstrate his satisfaction of the criteria.

            1. Greg Prickett

              Scott:

              I think that the charge is serious enough that Mr. Betts should sit in front of the Committee and answer questions, to let the members evaluate him face to face in addition to the paper evaluation.

              There are many states, Texas among them, where a felony conviction is an absolute bar to admission for the period of the sentence plus five years, and following that, the burden is on the applicant. If you apply that standard here, you’re looking at the last ten years (nine year sentence, plus five equals fourteen out of twenty-four).

              Appearing before the committee should be the very least that is required.

            1. Brian Cowles

              Mr. Prickett,

              Fair enough. That said, I see no reason why the last decade has not already provided evidence to the contrary. For all intents and purposes, Mr. Betts appears to have integrated back into society.

              SHG,

              I happen to agree with you, I’m just not as good at putting it into words.

      2. Erik H.

        Well, yes. You don’t stop being a carjacker; you hope to override the relevance of it with more positive behavior. There’s no logic to treating him like a prodigal son, and this is far from normal “everyone does it but few are caught” behavior.

        So interview the guy and give him his chance. He may well be a perfectly moral person these days, in which case he should get admission to the bar. But he has to prove it, more than other folks.

        That said it’s a pretty sad move to save this for the end. If we’re going to make a whole category of folks have a presumption of unfitness then we should probably let them get a hearing in advance (even if it costs money) before they potentially waste three years of their time. Though he is apparently quite smart so he surely knew the risk…

    1. Brian Cowles

      The problem arises, of course, because this isn’t about social consequences. If Betts doesn’t get the OK from the bar, he can’t practice law. If he can’t practice law, then he just wasted the time he studied to become a lawyer. If someone doesn’t want him as *their* lawyer, that’s fine, but to prevent him from even becoming a lawyer based solely on a 20-year-old conviction for something done when he was a juvenile would be a travesty. As a citizen of Connecticut, I am also going to write a letter to the bar saying as much.

      Also, I should point out that “OK, so he hasn’t gone to jail since 2005. Neither have most folks” is a bit misleading, since “most folks” have a presumption of fitness to practice law in part because of that exact fact. Betts, apparently, does not.

      For that matter, I’m not at all sure that a carjacking proves any deficiency in “honesty, trustworthiness, diligence or reliability”. I’m not sure it impacts any of those qualities at all, except under special circumstances.

  7. AnonJr

    The legal profession is not the bastion of integrity I believed.

    Is it that or is it that it is no longer the bastion of integrity it once was? As these … interesting … times roll on, that seems a distinction worth making.

  8. Tice with a J

    I note that Mr. Betts is being judged for a crime that he committed as a teenager. I dare say that if we were all judged by the actions of our teenaged selves, it would not be well for any of us.

    I believe that serious pundits have suggested that we seal all available records of a person’s pre-adult life once they reach adulthood, so no one will be forever haunted by youthful mistakes. I doubt this is even possible, let alone practical, but I do find the thought appealing.

  9. Noel Erinjeri

    How do you distinguish Betts from Stephen Glass? (I know links aren’t permitted, but you posted about Glass’s rejected application to the California Bar on 1/28/14).

    1. SHG Post author

      Excellent question. Glass’ “crime” wasn’t a crime, but his fundamental lack of integrity. His was a fault of character, not conduct. Just as we can’t fix stupid, we can’t fix a lack of integrity either.

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