State Bar urges murderer be barred from practicing law

PHOENIX (AP) -- A major legal group says James Hamm's criminal record as a convicted murderer should disqualify him from practicing law in Arizona.

The State Bar of Arizona's board of governors wrote the Arizona Supreme Court's character and fitness review committee, urging it to recommend that the justices deny Hamm permission to practice law, The Associated Press has learned.

Hamm graduated from the Arizona State University law school after being released from prison. He got an undergraduate degree while serving 17 years in prison for killing a man during a 1974 drug rip off.

Hamm passed the bar exam in 1999, starting a five-year clock for him to apply for clearance under the Supreme Court's character and fitness review. A state board took him off parole in 2001 and he filed his application with the Supreme Court in January.

The State Bar board's letter opposing admission of Hamm cited the nature of Hamm's criminal history and said that a practicing attorney convicted of his crime(s) would be disbarred, according to two board members who spoke on condition of anonymity.

State Bar President Charles W. Wirken and spokesman Matt Silverman confirmed that the 12,000-attorney, nonprofit organization's board wrote a letter in May taking a position on Hamm's application.

Neither Wirken nor Silverman would discuss the letter's contents because of the Supreme Court's confidentiality rule for character and fitness proceedings.

"We hope to be able to release the contents of the bar's letter in the future," Silverman said. "The board felt this was an important issue that it felt strongly about and felt strongly enough that it needed to make a comment."

Hamm's preparations for a post-prison legal career have stirred controversy in the past, with supporters saying he has rehabilitated himself and critics saying allowing him to practice law would tarnish the profession.

Some ASU law college alumni criticized the school's decision to admit Hamm. ASU law college officials did not return calls for comment on whether the college's alumni had taken a stance on Hamm's application to practice law.

Leaders of Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice said that the group representing criminal defense attorneys had not taken a position on Hamm's application.

Administrators who oversee attorney admissions for the Supreme Court declined comment on Hamm's case, including whether the character and fitness committee has already made a recommendation to the Supreme Court.

Hamm, a paralegal and advocate for inmate rights, also declined comment on his application and the State Bar's position.

"My application is pending and it's covered by the confidentiality provisions of the rules of the Supreme Court," Hamm said. "I don't want to create a situation that's different from the ordinary person going in."