In accepting the 2022 Woman of the Year award, Tarra Simmons ’17 thanked the many women in the legal profession who helped her along the way and encouraged those who will come after her.
“I stand before you today only through the love and the spirit of women in the legal community and beyond who have invested in me,” she said. “But I also stand before you today with an unwavering commitment to do my part to strengthen, encourage, invest in, and remove barriers for other amazing women who may also feel that they don’t belong.”
The Womxn’s Law Caucus at Seattle University School of Law, a student group dedicated to the support and development of women as active and successful members of the legal community, presented the award to Simmons at a reception on March 30.
Simmons came to law school at Seattle University determined to change social and legal barriers that harm people with criminal records, like herself. She went on to become director of the Civil Survival Project and the first-ever formerly incarcerated person to serve in a state legislature. She represents the 23rd Legislative District of Washington.
Her commitment to this work stems from her own experiences as a survivor of violence, poverty, and substance use disorder. She believes those closest to the problem are closest to the solution and should have an integral role in leading the drive to abolish mass incarceration and healing its aftermath.
“We all belong. We are all worthy,” she said at the ceremony. “I see you. I see your resilience. And whatever you do, just persevere.”
Simmons graduated magna cum laude in 2017, with the Dean’s Medal and the Graduating Student Award, but encountered further challenges when her application to take the Washington State Bar Exam was denied by the bar association’s character and fitness committee.
Dean Annette E. Clark ’89, one of Simmons’s most ardent supporters, read from the letter she sent to the committee, in which she wrote that she’d never been more certain of a graduate’s character and fitness than she was about Simmons.
The Washington Supreme Court ultimately ruled unanimously in favor of Simmons’s fitness to sit for the exam, which she took and passed in 2018. At the award ceremony, Simmons expressed special thanks to the women on the state’s high court who noticed the gender bias at play in her case, since men with criminal records had been allowed to take the bar exam.
Today, Simmons is an inaugural member of the Council on Criminal Justice and is a member of the board of directors for the Economic Opportunity Institute. A 2018 JustLeadership USA Fellow, she was recently honored as a Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers Champion of Justice and has received the YWCA Woman of Achievement award and a Golden Tennis Shoe Award, given by U.S. Senator Patty Murray for grassroots advocacy.