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State Bar Association Responds To Yale Grad’s Application

Karen DeMeola's office has fielded a high volume of calls and emails in the days since news circulated of a Yale-educated ex-con's efforts to practice law in Connecticut.

And she want's to make one thing clear.

"I believe that many of us have our life circumstances and experiences that make us who we are, shape us, and make us fantastic people and advocates for others," DeMeola, the president of the Connecticut Bar Association, said Friday. "I think we need people who represent other people for whom life happens, and I think it's important to have people who reflect the diversity of our communities admitted to the bar."

Her comments come days after the Courant and other news outlets carried headlines about Reginald Dwayne Betts. Betts, 36, graduated from the Ivy League institution last spring and passed the bar in February.

As a teen, Betts was convicted of crimes related to an armed carjacking, a felony he still carries on his record. After his release from an eight-year prison sentence, he's written prolifically about his life, and has become an advocate for youth facing the same challenges he once did.

The Connecticut Bar Examining Committee, an entity separate from the bar association, has given his application pause because of his criminal record, however.

"I think its important for us as a profession to look at all the areas of an applicant, and that we provide access and opportunity to people who otherwise wouldn't get access into the profession," Meola said, referring to experience as the assistant dean for enrollment and students at the University of Connecticut's law school.

Meola and her organization have started a pipeline program, targeting students in middle and high school, that aims to overcome barriers to a career in the judicial system.

"In law school, we don't just look a score, or someone's past that involves criminal action; we take a look at the whole holistic picture," she said. "The bar examiners have their process, and I trust that they will follow that process."

State regulation includes a felony conviction as example of "conduct that creates a presumption of lack of good moral character and/or fitness to practice law."

However, the examining committee, the body that weighs any application practice law in the state, has previously admitted budding lawyers who have been convicted of felonies, according to Melissa Farley, a spokeswoman for the state's Judicial Branch.

Applicants have the opportunity to provide material, including "documentation and affidavits" to the board's character fitness subcommittee, Farley said.

The subcommittee could then approve the application or request to bring the applicant and his or her attorney in for a private hearing in front of the full board.

The next meeting of the bar examining committee will be held Sept. 29.

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