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Supreme Court: Law grad charged for transporting 114 pounds of marijuana should be admitted to practice law

A UW Law School graduate who was charged for transporting 114 pounds of marijuana to Wisconsin will be able to practice law in the state.

On Tuesday, a 4-3 majority of the Wisconsin Supreme Court reversed the Board of Bar Examiners’ decision that Abby Padlock did not meet the character and fitness requirements for admission to the State Bar of Wisconsin.

The board reasoned that Padlock was deceptive in her law school and bar applications by underreporting the details of her arrest. The majority — made up of Justices Ann Walsh Bradley, Rebecca Bradley, Rebecca Dallet and Jill Karofsky — disagreed.

Padlock’s application disclosures cause issues

In 2015, Padlock and a friend left the state of Oregon with 114 pounds of marijuana to deliver to Wisconsin. They were stopped by law enforcement in Minnesota and consented to a K-9 search. Officers discovered the marijuana, three cell phones, $473 in cash, marijuana edibles and drug paraphernalia. Police also found more than $30,000 at Padlock’s home during a follow-up search, which was later subject to civil forfeiture.

Padlock was arrested and charged in Minnesota with two felonies. She was offered a deferred prosecution agreement, and the felony charges were later reduced to one count of possession of marijuana in the third degree, which is a misdemeanor. She received a stay of adjudication, a three-day jail sentence, a $1,000 fine and two years of probation.

While she was serving her sentence, Padlock applied to UW Law School. The opinion said Padlock reported that she had been given a stay of adjudication and that the charges against her had been dismissed, although they had not been dismissed at the time of her application. She didn’t report any other details of the criminal matter.

Padlock was admitted to UW Law. During her studies, she received an offer to participate in a program that required a background check, and that’s when the school learned about the details of her 2015 arrest. The opinion said UW Law determined she “seriously mischaracterized her 2015 criminal matter” and revoked the employment offer. After an investigation, the law school didn’t discipline Padlock, but warned her that the incident might adversely affect her admission to the bar.

In 2019, Padlock applied for admission to the State Bar of Wisconsin under the diploma privilege. In her application, she reported that she drove from Oregon to Wisconsin with marijuana in her car and that she was charged with possession of marijuana in 2015. After an evidentiary hearing, the board denied her admission to the State Bar.

“By having repeatedly minimized her criminal conduct surrounding her illegal transportation of marijuana across state lines, Ms. Padlock demonstrated a lack of character and fitness that is essential for admission to the Wisconsin bar,” the order said.

Majority: Board ‘brutally disparaging’ of Padlock’s credibility

Padlock then sought review before the state Supreme Court. The majority opinion said Padlock suggested that the board was biased against her because it ignored some of the evidence favorable to her and distorted the rest into “the portrait of an incorrigible liar.” She asked to be admitted to the State Bar with conditions.

The majority decided that the board made a “clean error” when it determined Padlock hadn’t engaged in any significant rehabilitative efforts to offset her misdeeds. The opinion listed Padlock’s work with UW Law’s Legal Assistance to Incarcerated People Project, a number of pro bono and volunteer positions she’s undertaken and starting a small business after graduating law school as evidence of her rehabilitative efforts.

The justices also found that the board gave undue weight to Padlock’s disclosure that she had successfully brought marijuana back to Wisconsin once before she was arrested. The board also “wholly discounted” the character testimony of two UW Law professors who know and worked with Padlock personally, the opinion said.

“The Board is brutally disparaging of her credibility, employing rhetoric that seems, at times, unnecessarily scathing,” the opinion said.

While the majority agreed that Padlock should have been exceedingly forthcoming on her applications, the justices thought denying her admission to practice law was too harsh of a punishment.

“Her goal of becoming a lawyer has already been delayed, and her prospect of obtaining bar admission has been uncertain,” the opinion said. “Her own actions — and the manner in which she disclosed them — have caused her significant obstacles, embarrassment, and had financial consequences.”

The majority reversed the board’s decision and remanded the matter to the board for further action consistent with Tuesday’s order. The state Supreme Court did not impose any conditions upon Padlock’s practice of law.

Dissent: Padlock showed ‘dishonest and deceptive’ behavior

Chief Justice Annette Ziegler said she would have affirmed the board’s decision to decline Padlock’s admission. Justices Brian Hagedorn and Pat Roggensack joined in her dissent.

They agreed with the board that Padlock repeatedly minimized her criminal conduct, despite warnings. Zielger said Wisconsin case law, meanwhile, emphasizes the importance of an applicant’s candor about prior misconduct.

“Ms. Padlock’s inadequate disclosures reflect dishonest and deceptive behavior, which demonstrates that Ms. Padlock has acted in a manner that is not honest, diligent, or reliable,” Ziegler wrote.

About Michaela Paukner, [email protected]

Michaela Paukner is the legal reporter for the Wisconsin Law Journal. She can be reached at (414) 225-1825 or by email at [email protected]

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