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In re Strait

Decided: August 2, 1990.

IN THE MATTER OF THE APPLICATION OF KENNETH C. STRAIT, JR.


On an order to show cause why respondent should not be refused admission to the bar.

For affirmance -- Wilentz, C.J., and Clifford, Handler, Pollock, O'Hern, Garibaldi and Stein, JJ. For reversal -- None.

Per Curiam

The issue in this proceeding is whether respondent, Kenneth Strait, Jr., a candidate for admission to the New Jersey bar, possesses those character traits indicative of fitness to practice law. Its resolution requires that we focus on three interrelated aspects of Strait's background, as revealed through the bar-admission process.

First, Strait had been convicted of several crimes committed between 1969 and 1971. More recently, in July 1985 he was arrested and charged with possession of cocaine and narcotics paraphernalia; both charges were dismissed. See infra at 482, 577 A.2d at 151. Second, three Certified Statements of Candidate submitted by Strait to the Committee on Character, in connection with his sitting for three administrations of the bar examination, contained responses that raised concerns about the applicant's candor. Third, and at the heart of this matter as we perceive it, Strait had been addicted to drugs and alcohol from adolescence until July 1985, when he was arrested

on the narcotics offenses. At that time respondent sought and received treatment for those addictions, and he has abstained from the use of intoxicating substances ever since.

Strait's application for admission to the bar has been the subject of extensive proceedings conducted by the Committee on Character and has engendered disagreement among Committee members. Part II of the Committee on Character (Conference Panel) conducted hearings in March and June 1988 to consider Strait's application for admission to the bar. See Regulations Governing Committee on Character (RG.) 303 (conference conducted by three members of Committee on Character may be held to consider application when, among other things, applicant had previously been convicted of a crime). Following those hearings, the Conference Panel unanimously recommended that certification be withheld.

Pursuant to RG. 304 respondent sought review of the Conference Panel's decision. The Hearing Review Panel (Review Panel) conducted de novo proceedings in March, April, and June 1989, and by a two-to-one vote reversed the decision of the Conference Panel and recommended that Strait be admitted to the practice of law, subject to conditions designed to ensure respondent's continued sobriety. The Statewide Panel of the Committee on Character (Statewide Panel) by a vote of five to one approved that recommendation. See RG. 303:4 (Statewide Review Panel shall review determinations to certify applicant's character subject to conditions).

We issued an order requiring respondent to show cause why he should not be refused admission to the bar. On the basis of our independent review of the entire record, we affirm the decision of the Statewide Panel.

I.

A.

The evidence produced in the course of these proceedings is consistent with the factual summary that follows. Kenneth

Strait, Jr., now thirty-nine years old, began using alcohol during high school. During his senior year Strait drank alcohol and smoked marijuana on a daily basis. During that time he also used cocaine, amphetamines, and barbiturates.

While in high school, between March and December 1970, he had been arrested and charged on two occasions with possession of a dangerous weapon and larceny, and charged once with defacing property. He was ultimately convicted of those crimes and sentenced to probation.

Despite his substance abuse and criminal convictions, Strait achieved academic success and was awarded a full scholarship to attend Brown University. His academic career at Brown was short-lived, however, lasting only from September 1970 to June 1971. Strait continued to abuse alcohol and drugs while at Brown, drinking alcohol five to seven times a week, smoking marijuana, and using amphetamines, barbiturates, and heroin. In order to support his drug habit, Strait stole from fellow University students. He was charged with and later convicted of breaking and entering, assault with a dangerous weapon, and breaking and entering with intent to commit larceny. In December 1970 he was suspended from Brown University.

In April 1971 Strait was arrested and charged with possession of a narcotic drug and frequenting a "narcotic nuisance," after police had raided the off-campus apartment of an acquaintance where Strait and others were smoking marijuana. In May 1971 Brown University re-opened Strait's file in order to investigate allegations that he had violated the conditions of his suspension. Specifically, it was alleged that he had attempted to procure monies fraudulently from the University through the improper use of vouchers. Strait was dismissed from Brown in June 1971. Thereafter, he left Rhode Island and moved to Louisiana. Criminal charges were still pending in Rhode Island at the time Strait left the jurisdiction, and bail money posted by his stepfather had been forfeited.

Strait remained a fugitive until March 1977. At that time, he surrendered to authorities in Rhode Island, pleaded nolo contendere on all charges, and received one year unsupervised concurrent terms of probation on each of the outstanding charges. Strait explained that his decision to terminate his fugitive status was prompted by his recent marriage to his long-time girlfriend, who had given birth to their son in 1972. Although Strait had described his alcohol and drug addictions as being "active" throughout the intervening years, he had decided to turn himself in to Rhode Island authorities because he was attempting to accept responsibility for his family and "pull [his] life together as best [he] could."

Strait enrolled at the University of Iowa in 1978, and received a bachelor's degree from that school in 1981. While a student there, he became intoxicated on alcohol four to five times a week and smoked marijuana several times a week. Despite his substance abuse, Strait maintained good grades, worked parttime, was president of the Minority Business Students' Association, and was active in other student and community organizations.

After disclosing fully his criminal history in his application, Strait was accepted to Rutgers University School of Law-Newark and began his studies there in September 1981. Strait's years at law school were marked by drug and alcohol abuse, poor academic performance, and a marriage that became increasingly strained. According to Strait, while attending law school he used alcohol to excess on a daily basis and cocaine "whenever [he] could get the money." He received his Juris Doctor degree from Rutgers in October 1984.

B.

In December 1984 respondent applied to take the February 1985 New Jersey bar examination and filed what would be the first of three Certified Statements of Candidate with the Committee

on Character. In that Certified Statement, Strait responded in the following manner to three essential questions:

Q. Have you ever been addicted to, or received treatment for the use of narcotics, drugs, or intoxicating liquor?

A. No.

Q. Have you or has any business controlled by or managed by you ever been charged with fraud, larceny, embezzlement, misappropriation of funds, misrepresentation or similar offenses * * * in any legal proceeding * * *?

A. No.

Q. Have you ever been charged with, arrested for, or convicted of, the violation of any law (other than minor traffic offenses)?

A. Yes.

Attached to that Certified Statement was a list recounting all of Strait's prior criminal convictions, including those involving larceny.

Strait failed the February 1985 examination. He thereafter filed his application to take the July 1985 bar examination. The second Certified Statement of Candidate, which he submitted on June 11, 1985, was substantially identical to the Statement he had filed in December 1984.

On July 24, 1985, Strait was arrested by Englewood police officers for possession of cocaine (less than one gram) and possession of narcotic paraphernalia (a hollowed-out cigarette used to smoke cocaine). Strait did not immediately notify the Committee on Character of that arrest. Ultimately, the possession-of-cocaine charge was administratively terminated because of the small amount involved. The possession of narcotic paraphernalia charge was dismissed for lack of prosecution because the arresting officers did not appear at trial. The State therefore had no witnesses.

According to Strait, the July 1985 arrest was the "final jolt" that made him realize that he suffered from substance addiction. At the recommendation of his former marriage counselor, he communicated with Fair Oaks Hospital, an alcohol- and drug-rehabilitation center, and was admitted to the hospital's outpatient program on August 2, 1985. ...


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