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Addiction Issues and The Supreme Court Committee On CharacterBruce D. Greenberg

Issues such as alcoholism or drug addiction present potential impediments to admission to the New Jersey Bar. Those issues are frequently the subject of hearings before the Supreme Court of New Jersey Committee on Character. But candidates who can show that they have dealt with their addictions can still be admitted, as the case of In re Strait, 120 N.J. 477 (1990), shows.

Kenneth Strait, Jr. had been addicted to drugs and alcohol from the time he was an adolescent until 1985, when he was arrested and charged with possession of cocaine and narcotics paraphernalia. Though those charges were ultimately dismissed, Strait got treatment for his addiction after the arrest. The treatment was successful, and he no longer used intoxicating substances thereafter.

Strait’s application to the Bar raised other issues as well. While in college at Brown University, he stole from fellow students to support his drug habit. He was convicted of breaking and entering, assault with a deadly weapon, and entering with intent to commit larceny while at Brown in 1970. In 1971, Strait was arrested on drug charges. Brown dismissed him from the school at that time. Strait then left Rhode Island for Louisiana and was a fugitive for six years, returning in 1977 to plead nolo contendere on the 1971 drug charges.

Strait later enrolled at another college, got his degree, and went to law school, graduating in 1984. All the while, he continued to abuse drugs and alcohol. Only after his 1985 drug arrest did he change his life. He got treatment, began to be abstinent, and became an active member of Alcoholics Anonymous (“AA”), Narcotics Anonymous, and Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers (“LCL”), an organization whose aim is to help lawyers who have addiction issues.

Besides the addiction issues and Strait’s criminal history, the Committee on Character perceived candor issues with Strait’s Bar application. An initial hearing panel recommended that he be denied admission to the Bar.

Strait appealed to a Review Panel, which recommended that he be admitted subject to conditions. Those conditions were that he not practice alone, but only in a firm or other supervised setting, that he regularly attend AA and LCL meetings, that he undergo and pay for random urine tests for alcohol and drugs, and that he and someone from AA and LCL submit quarterly affidavits attesting to his attendance at AA and LCL. The Statewide Panel of the Committee on Character affirmed that recommendation. Both the Review Panel and Statewide Panel rulings, however, were split decisions.

The Supreme Court issued an order to show cause. In a per curiam decision, the Court unanimously affirmed the Statewide Panel’s decision. The Court found that Strait had presented clear and convincing evidence of rehabilitation, which is what is required for a Bar applicant to overcome facts that would otherwise be disqualifying.

Citing cases discussing alcoholism in other contexts, the Court stated that “alcoholism is not a defect in character or personality.” Instead, it can be overcome through rehabilitation.

By the time the Court ruled, Strait had received treatment, regularly attended AA and LCL meetings, and been abstinent for five years. Among the rehabilitation evidence that Strait presented was his “record of community service and employment in the legal profession.” He lectured to children and young adults about the dangers of drugs and alcohol. He worked for several law firms as a clerk, earning warm recommendations from those employers, one of whom stood ready to hire him as an attorney, and to supervise him as required by the recommended conditions, once he was admitted to the Bar.

The other issues did not prevent the Court from admitting Strait. On the issue of his criminal record, Strait submitted expert testimony showing a “clear causal connection” between his previous addiction and his criminal history, which the Court found persuasive. The Court also accepted Strait’s explanations for what the initial panel had labeled as lack of candor.

Nowadays, the Committee on Character routinely refers any applicant who reveals such issues to the Lawyers Assistance Program (“LAP”), which (among many other worthwhile things) evaluates applicants’ current status and likely future course. LAP reports are often given significant weight in the Committee on Character process. But they are only one piece of the puzzle. The Strait case shows that, with a proper showing of rehabilitation, aided by counsel where appropriate, Bar applicants can overcome drug or alcohol issues.