Being convicted of a major crime is no bar to becoming a lawyer in most parts of the United States, according to an American Bar Association survey released today.
The survey showed that only Texas and the territory of Guam maintain an absolute ban on criminals becoming lawyers after they have served their time. Five others states, including Maryland, listed especially stringent requirements for persons convicted of felony offenses who want to become lawyers.
The study by the ABA's Commission on Correctional Facilities and Services was prompted by questions from convicts about their chance of becoming lawyers after they leave prison.
The study did not discuss whether lawyers convicted of major crimes would be readmitted to the bar after serving prison time.
The survey results illustrate a basic conflict between the idea that lawyers, because of their special trusts, must hold to a higher degree of honesty than most citizens, and the aim of modern penology to rehabilitate criminals so they can take their places as productive members of society.
While not specifically addressing the conflict as it applies to lawyers, the ABA commission said it believes former offenders should be able to get any jobs they have the skills for.
"The fact of a conviction, we have argued, is a matter to be taken into account . . .," the commission said. "A person's conviction may be, but is not necessarily, related to the ability to engage in a particular trade or occupation."
The survey showed that states that refuse to allow a convicted felon to become a lawyer "are more permissive when dealing with misdemeanor convictions (minor crimes)."
In Texas, for example, "if a minor charge does not involve moral turpitude, it is ignored," the report said.
The state of Maryland said conviction on charges "may create a presumption of unfitness." To illustrate how it acts on cases involving ex-convicts who want to become lawyers, the Maryland Court of Appeals, which disciplines and admits lawyers, supplied three examples to the ABA commistr for add two.
In one case, a man was convicted of spanking an infant with a paddle. He was placed on probation, but the appeals court denied his application to become a lawyer. Two years later, last September, he was pardoned by the governor and reapplied to the court. That case has not been decided yet.
Another man was convicted of having enough marijuana to make him a dealer, a felony charge, and was placed on probation in 1973, two years before he graduated from law school. He was allowed to become a lawyer last year on the basis of his record of "total rehabilitation . . . his remorse was more than evident."
A third man was convicted of shoplifting three times while attending college outside of Maryland. Both the character committee of the state bar and the Board of Law Examiners thought he had been rehabilitated enough to become a lawyer, but a sharply divided court decided against him by a 4-to-3 vote.
California and North Carolina told the ABA commission that only crimes involving moral turpitude would keep an ex-convict from becoming a lawyer; listed conviction for Tennessee certain felonies, such as selling drugs, shoplifting and petty larceny, as a bar to benoming a lawyer, and Mississippi said an ex-convict's convic-before he can be a lawyer.
Otherwise, the ABA commission concluded, "admitting authorities are treating the fact of a felony conviction as an important, but not conclusive factor in judging an individual's qualifications."