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Excluding killer doesn't improve image of attorneys

Dec. 13, 2005 12:00 AM

Perhaps the Arizona Supreme Court does not wish to offend murderers. That would explain what happened last week, when the justices ruled that convicted killer James Hamm, a graduate of ASU's law school, should not be allowed to practice law because he lacks "good moral character."

To most people, this was a no-brainer. As far as they're concerned, killing a guy precludes a person from ever establishing "good moral character." Strangely enough, the court didn't say that.

Instead, it ruled that Hamm should not be admitted to the state Bar because he didn't pay child support for a son he had before being sent to prison. And for not showing enough remorse or candor (as far as the justices were concerned) about the man he wounded in the same incident in which he killed another. And for allegedly cribbing a few lines from another court's ruling to use in his own brief. Not for murder, however.

"The court declined to set a standard (that said murderers should be excluded from practicing law) because there were other issues that they felt would prohibit him (Hamm) from being admitted," said Cari Gerchick, a spokeswoman for the Supreme Court.

Murderers across Arizona must have breathed a sigh of relief. As a class, they were not singled out.

Hamm spent 17 years in prison. He turned his life around, got educated and has expressed remorse. He's a poster boy for the possibility of rehabilitation.

Still, most people might agree that he doesn't deserve to practice law. He does, however, deserve a straight answer. And he didn't get it.

For one thing, being admitted to the bar does not mean that you'll practice law. Someone has to hire you. Having Hamm's name on the stationery could bring a law firm unwanted publicity.

Or, a firm might say that we either believe in rehabilitation or we don't. And if we do, then why not hire Hamm?

Particularly since, from what I was told, licensed attorneys don't get disbarred for the offenses that supposedly kept Hamm from being admitted in the first place.

According to Matt Silverman, a spokesman for the State Bar of Arizona, "There's a huge difference between someone who has applied to be an attorney and someone who already is in practice and is having problems."

In other words, there is a double standard. Once you're in, you're in.

"Practicing law is a privilege," Silverman said. "We believe that people who have committed murder shouldn't be allowed to practice law, period."

Unfortunately, that isn't what the Supreme Court said. It pointed to the child support and all the other stuff.

The fact is that attorneys have no greater claim on "good moral character" than any other profession. A lot less, if you ask some people. I would have liked to see the Supreme Court dispense with the legal mumbo jumbo and say what it meant. Something like: "We believe that letting Hamm become a lawyer would have made the rest of us look bad. And since the law allows us to exclude people we don't like, we're excluding him."

Hamm may be the first convicted murderer in Arizona history to graduate from law school and try to be admitted to the Bar. He also could be the last, since murderers now serve longer sentences that are without the possibility of parole.

Either way, his case seems to prove two things. First, that in rare instances a murderer can be rehabilitated. Second, that the legal profession, perhaps, cannot.

Reach Montini at or (602) 444-8978.