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Man allowed to join Oregon Bar more than 30 years after passing exam

His dream was deferred for decades, but it’s no longer being denied.

Robert R. Parker Jr. aspired to practice law and passed the Oregon State Bar exam in 1990. However, he wasn’t admitted to the bar until Dec. 23, 2021, after the Oregon Supreme Court reversed its decision to uphold a State Bar board’s determination that he was unfit.

Robert Parker Jr. is sworn in as a member of the Oregon State Bar by Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Melvin Oden-Ott Dec. 23. [Photo courtesy of Robert Parker Jr.]

“It really hasn’t set in yet,” said Parker, 66, of Portland, during a telephone interview about the Oregon Supreme Court reversing its 1992 decision to support the Board of Bar Examiners’ denial for Parker to practice law.

Parker has been employed in the insurance industry for many years. His efforts to be allowed to practice law became like a second job as he attempted to regain his reputation. Sometimes he had lawyers assisting him, but not always.

While he has no ill-will, he still keeps in mind that those actions were intentional.

“They knew I was innocent, and they didn’t care,” Parker said.

In June 2021, an Oregon Senate resolution filed with the Secretary of State explained that members of the 81st Legislative Assembly found that “Robert Parker has engaged in no wrongdoing or unethical conduct” and provided him an official apology for the “31 years of damage wrongfully done.”

“For more than 30 years, Robert has lived beneath the weight of the case,” said Stephen Scott, the lawyer who represented Parker. “Despite all his hard work in the face of unlikely odds to complete college, then law school, and then to pass the bar, Robert was kept out. I commend the state Supreme Court for making the right call and restoring justice not just for Robert but for the whole bar that he now joins.”

Scott has known Parker most of his life. His father, Tigard-based lawyer Michael Scott, had employed Parker as a legal assistant years ago. Both men had young families at the time.

The younger Scott reconnected with Parker soon after passing the bar himself and on his father’s suggestion. Now associated with Fisher & Phillips LLP, also based in Portland, he was interested in assisting Parker with his long fight to become a lawyer.

The result came after five years of pro bono work.

Scott demonstrated to the court that some people who actually did things Parker was ultimately only accused of were admitted to the bar.

“I argued that while Bob denies the allegations, even if we accept facts — based on case law — he’s allowed to practice,” Scott explained.

The Oregon Supreme Court agreed with Scott and determined that the original State Bar and Supreme Court decisions “profoundly impacted Parker’s personal and professional life in a variety of ways for the next 30 years.”

Political issues at the Capitol weren’t the only reason why Parker was singled out. Institutional bias in the state’s judicial system played roles in Parker’s treatment. An Oregon Supreme Court Task Force eventually examined judicial system biases and published a report in 1994 that determined that such bias was “pervasive.”

“The task force described that form of bias as a residue of beliefs that continue to linger in the subconscious of society, perpetuate negative stereotypes and, accordingly, affect peoples’ action without their knowledge — to the disadvantage of racial and ethnic minorities involved with Oregon’s court system,” Scott wrote. “It is reasonable to conclude that Parker’s admission proceeding was also unfairly affected by the kind of institutional bias identified by the task force.”

It’s certain that Parker went to Salem and made some powerful enemies.

State Sen. Jim Hill, D-Salem, the first African American to be elected to state office in Oregon, chose Parker for a position at the Legislature during the 1987 session. Hill was the chair of the Senate Business, Housing and Finance Committee, and Parker’s job was as administrator of the committee during that legislative session.

His job was to help the committee chair by completing such tasks as researching legislative proposals, arranging hearings about legislation and guiding that legislation through the committee. The research portion of his job often put him in contact with lobbyists.

Rumors began to spread that he hustled lobbyists for money to start an insurance company and used a lobbyist’s credit card to buy personal items. Those rumors coincided with movement of a bill out of Hill’s committee created to stop oil companies from taking over independent gasoline dealerships.

Parker resigned after then-Senate President John Kitzhaber suspended him. Kitzhaber based his action on a discussion with two former Senate presidents who had opposed the same bill.

The investigation ended because of insufficient evidence. Also, one of the men who accused Parker of bribery represented the Petroleum Marketers Association while the other lobbied for companies that wanted the bill to be defeated, The Oregonian reported afterward.

Subsequent accusations arose but were less attention-getting than the original bribery allegations. The next phase was investigation into whether Parker impersonated Hill when a bank employee called his office as part of a credit check. It was also said that Parker asked a telephone company lobbyist to help him reduce the amount of his phone service deposit.

The phone company lobbyist explained that he not only reduced Parker’s deposit but also did the same for many other “legislators, lobbyists and aides.”

Parker was singled out for having made personal calls on his office phone, too.

“Even by Oregon’s squeaky-clean standards, it wasn’t much of a scandal,” a reporter for The Oregonian wrote in 1991.

There was an attempt to charge Parker with misdemeanors for filing false financial statements but a Marion County judge dismissed those charges.

Those allegations turned out to be unfounded as well but they weren’t forgotten. Parker later discovered that the Marion County district attorney’s office had sent his investigation file to the Oregon State Bar a year before he applied for admission to practice law.

Parker was already heavily in debt. He was behind on his student loans and some of his other bills. And he hadn’t yet made good on traffic charges back in Michigan, where he grew up.

Losing his job made his financial troubles even worse. And finding employment was tough because his reputation was severely damaged by the resulting media attention.

“Unfortunately, for more than two years, Parker and his family bordered on homelessness, as Parker made ends meet through a series of minimum wage jobs and the largess of others, especially in the religious community,” Scott wrote to the court.

Parker ended up filing bankruptcy and had accumulated more than $140,000 in debt.

After Parker passed the bar exam, he was flagged to undergo additional vetting before admittance to the state bar based on his financial problems and his troubles stemming from his work at the Legislature.

The Board of Bar Examiners determined Parker had been misleading and hadn’t fully disclosed information when applying for financial assistance and wasn’t making adequate effort to pay off debts.

They also brought up earlier accusations that originated at the Legislature, such as his alleged Hill impersonation to the bank employee, and said he was “less than honest in the course of litigation.”

Parker brought witnesses to the board who said that he had matured since his employment at the Legislature. He said he made some mistakes, but denied wrongdoing of any sort.

“One doesn’t handle money well when he doesn’t have any,” said Portland lawyer Forrest Rieke, who spoke in support of Parker.

Some of the board members considered allowing Parker to work alongside another lawyer to see that money is handled appropriately, but the idea was criticized as being an arrangement too difficult to manage.

Parker later described his experiences to an official involved with the United States House Judiciary Committee. In correspondence written in 2007 to Greg Barnes, senior legal counsel to the U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Michigan, and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, he stated that he had been compelled to sign a statement that actions taken against him weren’t racially motivated.

Still, it appeared people were out to get him who held grudges. Not only was his investigation file sent to the bar. It was also sent to the Oregon Government Ethics Commission, which “began the next phase of state action that was wholly premised on constitutionally impermissible conduct,” he wrote to Barnes.

Among irregularities in Parker’s bar board hearing was the introduction of such prejudicial material into the process, Scott said. A report about Parker by the Oregon Government Ethics Commission contained references to “interracial dating” and stated that Parker was “a Black Muslim.”

Scott went on to point out that some board members reviewing Parker’s fitness at least appeared to have conflicts of interest against him.

The board also allowed a lawyer to practice law after that person claimed to be an assistant district attorney to avoid getting a speeding ticket. The impersonation was a violation of the state’s criminal impersonation statute because that lawyer completed an official action while assuming that character, he said.

The board opted to penalize Parker even though his actions weren’t in violation of that statute. To reach that same level, Parker would have had to have conducted some sort of official government business only Hill would be allowed to do while impersonating him, such as voting on a bill, according to Scott.

The only other difference between the two men was that “one was white and the other was Black,” he said.

Parker’s Michigan childhood was characterized as hardscrabble in the Oregon State Senate resolution filed with the Secretary of State in June of 2021. After his father died when he was only 13, life became even worse. He ended up dropping out of high school and having to attend reform school.

He ultimately obtained his GED and made his way into community college in Michigan, then transferred to the University of Michigan. He graduated from the North Carolina Central University School of Law in 1985.

Parker then worked in the insurance business and the Saginaw County prosecutor’s office, also in Michigan, and on political races for Democratic National Committee in the Southern U.S. before relocating to Oregon.