Wash. Supreme Court: Registered sex offender can be a lawyer
Posted November 3, 2022 7:08 pm.
Last Updated November 3, 2022 7:16 pm.
SEATTLE (AP) — A divided Washington Supreme Court on Thursday approved a registered sex offender’s application to become an attorney in the state.
Zachary Leroy Stevens, 35, has been living in Arizona, where since attending law school he has worked for a lawyer who represents American Indian tribes. He grew up in Utah, where he was convicted of voyeurism after sending child pornography to an undercover detective at age 19 and where several years later he was arrested for drunken driving while on probation.
In a 5-4 decision, the court noted his relative youth at the time of his offenses and said he had demonstrated the “good moral character” necessary to be allowed to practice law. Stevens was previously refused admission to the Arizona bar but said he would move to Washington state if his application there was approved.
“Like all of us, Stevens is more than the sum of the worst moments of his life,” Justice Mary Yu wrote for the majority. “As an adult, he has abstained from engaging in any unlawful conduct since 2013. In that time, he has graduated from college and law school, he has been steadily employed, and he has developed a supportive network of friends and family. It is apparent from the record that Stevens has taken responsibility for his prior misconduct and shows remorse.”
The dissenting justices, led by Justice Barbara Madsen, said they were concerned that Stevens had not completed his legal obligations — he must continue to register as a sex offender until 2024 at least; that he had not provided a current mental health evaluation; and that the Arizona bar had rejected his application, a factor that Washington should respect, they said.
“The fact that Stevens must register as a sex offender until he is eligible to petition for remission is particularly concerning, especially because one of this court’s key responsibilities is to guard the public and its confidence in the judicial system,” Madsen wrote.
That said, she suggested her analysis might be different once Stevens submitted a current evaluation and was no longer required to register as a sex offender. Under Utah law, sex offenders can petition to have their registration requirements canceled after 10 years.
Stevens applied to become a lawyer in Washington in 2019, after Arizona rejected his application. A Washington State Bar Association committee reviewed his petition and rejected it 6-5. He appealed to the Supreme Court.
His attorney did not immediately return an email seeking comment Thursday. The attorney he works for in Arizona, Margaret Vick, supported his application, the majority noted.
“When asked about Stevens’ criminal history and his bar application, his employer stated, ‘That 19-year-old should not be a lawyer. The . . . 33-year-old that I work with I think is a different person than that 19-year-old was,’” Yu wrote.
The Washington Supreme Court has previously allowed people convicted of crimes to become lawyers. In 2014, the court ruled that Shon Hopwood, a convicted bank robber who became a “jailhouse lawyer” could take the state bar exam. Hopwood passed, was admitted to the bar and now teaches at Georgetown University Law Center and has been admitted to the U.S. Supreme Court bar.
He also represented Tarra Simmons, who successfully petitioned the court to take the bar despite convictions for assault and drug and theft charges. In 2020, she became the first formerly incarcerated person elected to the Washington state Legislature, and she now works with the National Justice Impact Bar Association, which helps people with criminal backgrounds become lawyers.
Simmons said Thursday the organization is aware of about 100 attorneys around the country who have been admitted to practice law despite past convictions — but no others who have ongoing legal obligations such as probation or sex offender registration. She was thrilled for Stevens, but to the extent that criminal history has long been used as a proxy for race, the ruling is about more that just his admission to the bar, she said.
“This is about furthering justice and advancing policies against systemic racism,” Simmons said.
Gene Johnson, The Associated Press