Editorial: Lawyers stripped of licenses shouldn’t be justices

Although there is a trope that anybody in America can grow up to be president of the United States, there are some limitations. As spelled out in Article 2, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution, a president must be a natural-born citizen, at least 35 years old, and a 14-year resident.

Other elected offices have varying requirements, typically calling for candidates to meet a minimum age, be a registered voter, and be a resident of the jurisdiction where they are running. But it remains true that most adults are eligible to throw their hat in the ring for a variety of elected positions.

That was challenged recently by a pair of candidates for the Washington State Supreme Court, leading different Thurston County judges to arrive at the same sensible conclusion: Attorneys who have been stripped of their law licenses are not eligible to run for the state Supreme Court.

Such a determination should appear obvious, but it became an issue when Stan Lippmann and John “Zamboni” Scannell filed to run for the state’s highest court. Following the court rulings — which were decided in Thurston County because that is where the Supreme Court convenes — Lippmann and Scannell will have their names removed from the ballot for this year’s election.

Lippmann, who has run in more than a dozen elections since 1997 but never won, was disbarred in 2008 for misusing clients’ money. 570

Scannell, who earned his nickname by driving the ice-cleaning machine for hockey games at Seattle Center, was disbarred in 2010 for conflict of interest and for obstructing the state bar association’s investigation into his misconduct.

Their ineligibility for the court would seem to be a clear-cut legal issue. The state constitution says the only people eligible to sit on the bench are those who “have been admitted to practice” law in Washington. Lippmann argued that his previous status as a member of the bar met that standard, but in a similar case in 1916 the Supreme Court ruled, “This provision of the constitution, in our opinion, defines a personal status which must continue, and when the status ceases to continue, the person is ineligible.”

That logic still holds.

The decision to remove Lippmann and Scannell from the ballot leaves justices Sheryl Gordon McCloud and Susan Owens running unopposed. In the third Supreme Court position on the ballot, Nathan Choi is challenging Justice Steven Gonzalez. After running last year for a seat on the state Court of Appeals, Choi was admonished for campaign ads that implied he already was a judge and for not properly disclosing campaign contributions.

Washington’s Supreme Court undoubtedly has skewed progressive in recent years, with a series of decisions cheered by Democrats and bemoaned by conservatives. It would be beneficial for voters to have robust challengers for the court who can spark substantive debates about rulings past and future.

But while such debates can help determine the direction of our state, the first step must be to have qualified challengers on the ballot.