Sunday, Oct 22, 2017
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UT law school grad appeals denial to take bar exam

COLUMBUS — A University of Toledo law school graduate today personally argued his own appeal before the Ohio Supreme Court after a panel’s refusal to let him take the bar exam because of racially tinged comments he made in his application.

Shamir Lee Coll, of Lorain, in explaining past motor vehicle violations, wrote “KKK…their city is worthless” in reference to Bellfontaine, “KKK…maybe I was speeding” in reference to Fremont, “KKK…they wanted to be me” in reference to Lorain, and “KKK…They hate being them” in reference to Kent State University.

Ultimately, the Board of Commissioners on Character and Fitness determined that his “immaturity (or egotism….or both)” and his “dramatic lack of judgment” made him unfit to practice law and would not engender the trust of clients, fellow attorneys, and courts. It told him to reapply again in 2019.

The board’s 12 members, court appointees, are charged with determining whether those seeking admission to the practice of law possess the necessary character, fitness, and moral qualifications. It accused Mr. Coll of using the application process to test how far he could get in exercising his right to make provocative statements.

Mr. Coll graduated from UT in 2015, served as a legal intern at Toledo Municipal Court, and is now a victim rights advocate for Genesis House through Lorain Municipal Court.

He told the Supreme Court that the board’s denial violated his First Amendment right of free speech and compared his case to past U.S. Supreme Court rulings that reversed refusals in other states to let those with connections to communist organizations or who refused to answer questions about political affiliations to take the exam.

He also argued that a three-year prohibition against taking the bar was too harsh, pointing to other cases that had received similar punishment.

“They all involve cases of drug and alcohol abuse, mental instability,” he said. “They involve cases of an applicant lying about when they graduated and acting as if they were a law school graduate…I would argue that the facts of my case are much less severe. We’re talking about statements made to the state of Ohio, and I believe those are protected by the First Amendment.”

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor responded, “Your statements may be protected by the First Amendment if you want to make them in any other context, except for when you’re asked to be responsive in order to take a test to be licensed for the practice of law. It’s not the content. It’s the fact that they were unresponsive.”

Mr. Coll was initially vague on the details of his traffic violations during the prior decade on his application, simply stating that he’d received many citations and described the reason as “racism mostly.” It was upon request for further detail that he provided the “KKK” responses.

Mr. Coll has since said the traffic violations were minor misdemeanors that occurred when he was between 17 and 21. He’d had no more such violations in the last four years.

He said he has since submitted a fully completed application.

“When the Supreme Court of Ohio asked you for information about a traffic violation at Kent State University, your response was that they are the KKK…,” Justice William O’Neill said. “Are you defending that response here this morning?”

Mr. Coll responded, “I am arguing here today that that’s irrelevant…I don’t have to defend that position…”

Justice O’Connor said she found particularly disturbing that, when asked for further details, Mr. Coll had provided simply his name, Social Security number, and birth date and then apparently expected the board to do the research to fill in the blanks.

“We’re not interested in your beliefs about the KKK, the Communist Party, whoever,” she said. “Your political ideology is not the issue here. The issue is very simply you were asked to respond to these questions. You were given multiple opportunities to respond to the question. You pretty much took it upon yourself to be non-responsive.”

The court did not immediately rule.

Contact Jim Provance at: jprovance@theblade.com or 614-221-0496.

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