In November 2017, Reginald Dwayne Betts was admitted to the Connecticut Bar. At first glance, this is hardly surprising. Betts graduated from Yale Law School with an already-impressive list of accomplishments, including a fellowship at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Studies and a presidential appointment to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. He had even published two books of poetry and a memoir alongside earning a master’s degree in fine arts. After graduating from the one of the most prestigious law schools in the country and passing the state bar exam, the work of becoming a licensed lawyer seemed all but behind him. Only, for Betts, his admission to the bar was anything but guaranteed. Indeed, for a time, it was in serious doubt. He still needed to clear one more hurdle: a character and fitness review.
In 1996, when he was just 16 years old, Betts was arrested for carjacking, charged with multiple felony convictions, and sentenced to prison where he would serve eight years. More than 10 years after his release—and after amassing much of the lengthy résumé he commands today—Betts sought to become a licensed attorney to work toward combating mass incarceration, especially that of black youth. In the summer of 2017, the Connecticut Bar Examining Committee informed Betts that they would not recommend him for admission to the bar because, per its regulations, he failed to establish “present good moral character and fitness despite past conduct.” After the Committee conducted a subsequent in-depth investigation and hearing, and after a series of high-profile media articles about his case, Betts was at last cleared to serve as a lawyer in Connecticut.
Betts’s struggle to gain admission raises important questions about the legal profession’s ongoing character and fitness debate. What is the role of rehabilitation in determining character and fitness? Should these exceptional cases serve as the minimum requirement for a former felon to gain admission to the bar? Is redemption and rehabilitation impossible without a visibly elite level of personal accomplishment? All these questions drive to how to operationalize a character and fitness requirement in the profession—and more broadly, the very purpose the requirement serves.
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“Admit This Ex-Con to the Connecticut Bar,” The New York Times
“A Poet, with Prison Behind Him, Becomes an Attorney,” The New Yorker