The legal concept of good moral character is a construct currently used in United States (US) law to authorize the designee as fit for a particular purpose. Typically a person loses this status if he or she commits a crime of moral turpitude — i.e., a crime that indicates a lack of morality in the person. Though the moral character classification has limited legal use, it is often a determining factor in deciding whether or not to grant US citizenship to an alien applicant. It is also used as a determining factor in granting certain professional licenses.
In order to qualify as having good moral character, a person may not have committed crimes involving what is called “moral turpitude.” Acts of moral turpitude are characterized by depravity and are a likely indication that the actor is devoid of a sense of morality. Generally speaking, any crimes of dishonesty such as fraud, theft, and tax evasion are considered acts of moral turpitude. Also included in this category of crimes is illegal trafficking of controlled substances, failure to appear in court, and any crimes involving national security.
Good moral character is a primary requirement for admission to the United States as a citizen. If an applicant has been convicted of a crime of moral turpitude, including both crimes of dishonesty and controlled substance violations, he or she will typically be denied US citizenship. Though convictions will typically prevent such granting of citizenship, simply being arrested for a crime of moral turpitude will not bar the applicant. Further, if the circumstances surrounding the crime include simply a petty offense such as a minor drug possession charge, the application for citizenship may still be considered in some cases.
Another area where good moral character is determinative in US law is in granting the license to practice law. Though the license to practice law is governed entirely by the state in which the license is granted, every state’s prerequisites for admittance to practice law have a good moral character requirement. The rationale behind such a requirement is the nature of law practice in which clients are required to put a lot of faith in the character of the attorney who is rendering advice. Even after admittance to practice law in a particular state, attorneys are required to maintain their good moral character or face the possibility of disbarment — the retraction of the right to practice law — or other sanctions.