CLEMENCY

Law school grad, seeking to practice, gets civil rights restored

 

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RIGHTS


Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau

A law school graduate and single mother of three, Jessica Chiappone of Boca Raton wants to practice law in Florida.

But nearly 15 years ago, she admitted her role in a drug conspiracy that made her a convicted felon, stripping her of her civil rights under Florida law.

She was traveling with people who had illegal narcotics and took a plea, even though she said she was not aware the drugs were in her presence.

Chiappone, 35, served seven months in a federal prison and worked to turn her life around. A graduate of Nova Southeastern's law school, she was prohibited from taking the Bar exam until her civil rights were restored.

Gov. Rick Scott and the three Cabinet members, meeting as the Board of Clemency, backed her cause Wednesday and restored her civil rights.

"You've completely turned your life around," Attorney General Pam Bondi told her. "You've done a remarkable thing."

"Good luck on the Bar exam," Scott told her after the vote.

Chiappone grew up on Long Island, N.Y., and had her rights restored automatically in New York when she completed her probation nearly a decade ago. She has spent 5 ½ years trying to regain the same rights in Florida.

"It's absurd," she said after driving through the night to the Capitol with her 6-month-old son, Gianni. "I feel like the system makes it harder for someone who's trying to make a difference. It's almost easier not to try anymore."

Chiappone's attorney, Mark Schlakman, noted that she has been trapped by an apparent inconsistency: Two years ago, the Legislature passed and Scott signed a law that said ex-felons do not need to have their civil rights restored to obtain state or professional licenses.

A special commission created by former Supreme Court Chief Justice Fred Lewis disagrees. The commission in 2009 urged the Supreme Court to pass a rule prohibiting convicted felons from seeking Bar admission, even if their civil rights are restored.

The current threshold is "too low," the commission said, noting that a convicted felon cannot be a state law enforcement officer but could practice law.

The Board of Bar Examiners, which assesses the character and fitness of would-be lawyers, declined to support the recommendation and opted to support the status quo, which would help Chiappone's case.

Chiappone, holding her son after Wednesday's unanimous vote, said: "It's a step in the right direction, but I still have a huge uphill battle to face."

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263.

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