SEATTLE — A divided Washington Supreme Court on Thursday approved a registered sex offender's application to become an attorney in the state -- though the man says he's not sure he'll wind up practicing law after all.
Zachary Leroy Stevens, 35, has been living in Arizona, where he attended law school and 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 in 2006 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, that he wasn't much older than the people whose images he shared, and said he had since 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, where his wife had connections, 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."
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.
In a phone interview Thursday night, he said he cried when he read the decision.
"I've been trying to get admitted to the practice of law for longer than I attended law school," he said.
Stevens said he is now working for the multinational conglomerate Honeywell, where he works on subcontracting for government projects. His plans to move to Washington state have been disrupted because he and his wife have split up, he said.
As for legal work, he noted that he could stay in Phoenix and represent tribes as an attorney on gaming and water rights issues, because he wouldn't need to be a member of the Arizona bar to do so. Or he could move to Washington state anyway, since his brother recently moved to Portland, Oregon.
"I have a lot of options," Stevens said. "The decision was extremely compassionately written, and it affords a lot of people opportunities that just weren't available to them. Even if I don't pursue the practice of law, I'm satisfied this court found merit in my case. More so than any other state, Washington has established parameters on what it takes to be admitted to the practice of law when you have a checkered background."
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.