SEATTLE (AP) The Washington Supreme Court on Thursday granted a petition by a convicted sex offender to become a lawyer in the state, although the man said he is not sure he will end up practicing law.
Zachary Leroy Stevens, 35, lives in Arizona, where he studied law and worked for an attorney representing American Indian tribes. He grew up in Utah, where he was convicted of voyeurism in 2006 after sending child pornography to an undercover detective at the age of 19, and where he was arrested several years later for drunken driving while on probation.
In a 5-4 decision, the court noted his relative youth at the time of his crimes, not much older than the images he shared, and said he had since demonstrated the required “good moral character.” permit to practice law. Stevens had previously been denied admission to the bar in Arizona, but said he would move to Washington state, where his wife had ties, if his application there was accepted.
“Like all of us, Stevens is more than the sum of the worst moments of his life,” Judge Mary Yu wrote for the majority. “As an adult, he has abstained from any illegal behavior since 2013. During that time, he has completed college and a law degree, worked steadily, and developed a supportive network of friends and family.”
The dissenting justices, led by Justice Barbara Madsen, said they were concerned that Stevens had failed to meet his legal obligations — he must continue to register as a sex offender until at least 2024; that he did not provide a current mental health evaluation; and that the Arizona bar rejected his request, a factor Washington should have respected, they said.
“The fact that Stevens must register as a sex offender until he is eligible for parole is particularly troubling, especially since one of the primary responsibilities of this court is to protect the public’s trust and confidence in the judicial system,” Madsen wrote.
That said, Stevens suggested that his analysis might be different if he didn’t have to register as a sex offender after submitting the current evaluation. Under Utah law, sex offenders can apply to have registration requirements waived after 10 years.
Stevens applied to become a lawyer in Washington in 2019 after Arizona rejected his application. A committee of the Washington State Bar Association reviewed his request and rejected it 6-5. He appealed to the Supreme Court.
In a phone interview Thursday night, she said she cried when she read the decision. “I’m trying to get into law practice more than I did when I went to law school,” he said.
Stevens said he now works for the multinational conglomerate Honeywell, where he works on outsourcing for government projects. His plans to move to Washington state have been put on hold because he and his wife have separated, he said.
As for the legal work, he stated that he could stay in Phoenix and represent the tribe as a gaming and water rights attorney because he would not have to be a member of the Arizona bar to do so. Or, he could still go to Washington state, as his brother has moved to Portland, Oregon.
“I have a lot of options,” Stevens said. “The decision was written very compassionately, and it gives a chance to many people who were not available. Although I do not practice law, I am confident that this court has found merit in my case. More than any other state, Washington has set the bar for what it takes to be admitted to the practice of law when the parameters are squared away.”
The Washington Supreme Court has previously allowed people convicted of felonies to become lawyers. In 2014, the court ruled that Shon Hopwood, a convicted bank robber turned “jailhouse lawyer,” could take the state’s bar exam. Hopwood passed, was admitted to the bar and currently teaches at the Georgetown University Law Center and is admitted to the bar of the US Supreme Court.
He also represented Tarra Simmons, who pleaded with the judge to take over the bar despite being charged with assault and drug and theft. In 2020, he was the first incarcerated member of the Washington State Legislature, and now works with the National Justice Impact Bar Association, which helps people with criminal records become lawyers.
Simmons said Thursday that the organization knows of about 100 attorneys across the country who have been admitted to practice law despite past convictions, but none who have ongoing legal obligations, such as probation or the sex offender registry. He was thrilled for Stevens, but to the extent that criminal history is used as a proxy for race, the verdict is about more than bar admission, he said.
“This is about increasing justice and advancing policies against systemic racism,” Simmons said.
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