The Utah Supreme Court has ousted a polygamist judge from the bench, saying his relationships with three women he considers his "wives" are clearly breaking the law and bringing his judicial office into disrepute.
Hildale Justice Court Judge Walter Steed accepted the court's decision but expressed disappointment in Friday's ruling.
"I had hoped that the court would see my case as an opportunity to correct the injustices that are caused by the criminalization of my religious beliefs and lifestyle, and I am disappointed that the court did not reach those issues in my case," Steed said in a written statement.
Steed has been a part-time justice court judge in the polygamous border town of Hildale, Washington County, since 1980. He has been hearing cases on Saturdays, earning a little more than $300 a month. Steed was not expected to take the bench today or any other day.
"I've advised him not to hear any more cases," Steed's lawyer, Rod Parker, said Friday.
In a three-page written ruling, the high court unanimously agreed that Steed's personal or religious beliefs cannot transcend the laws that he has sworn to uphold while in office.
"In the case of a sitting judge, it is of little or no consequence that the judge may believe a criminal statute is constitutionally defective. A judge ignores the clearly stated criminal prohibitions of the law at his or her peril," states the ruling written by Associate Chief Justice Michael Wilkins.
Steed came under fire when the group Tapestry Against Polygamy filed a complaint last year with the Judicial Conduct Commission, which investigates claims of judicial misbehavior.
"How can he uphold something he isn't honoring?" asked Rowenna Erickson with the anti-polygamy group. "He was definitely breaking the law. There are practicing polygamists who are attorneys, as well as police officers."
Steed's conduct was, according to the JCC, a "(flouting) of the prohibitions of the bigamy statute" for more than 25 years. The JCC said Steed's admitted behavior and his stated intentions to continue in polygamous marriages were prejudicial to the administration of justice and brought the judicial office into disrepute.
Not only are judges expected to obey the law, but the Supreme Court ruling said they must meet a higher standard of behavior than other people or risk undermining society.
"Judges in this state are expected to abide by all of the laws applicable to them. Civil disobedience carries consequences for a judge that may not be applicable to other citizens," Wilkins said in the ruling. "When the law is violated or ignored by those charged by society with the fair and impartial enforcement of the law, the stability of society is placed at undue risk."
JCC Executive Director Colin Winchester was unavailable for comment Friday.
Steed legally married his first wife in 1965 in a state-recognized civil ceremony and was sealed in religious rituals to two other women in 1975 and 1985, respectively. He has 32 children with the women. Although the second and third unions are not legal marriages, state law prohibits taking another spouse while still married, purporting to marry another individual, or cohabitating with another person. Bigamy in Utah is a third-degree felony.
Steed is a member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, based in the border towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., which encourages polygamy as a means to achieve the highest state of glory in the afterlife.
It is unknown what the city of Hildale plans to do about a replacement judge. Hildale Mayor David Zitting did not return phone calls seeking comment. Parker said he believes the Hildale City Council will select a member of the community who is a member of the FLDS church, "just not a practicing polygamist."
Parker acknowledged that although the circumstances were about polygamy, the opinion said very little about plural marriage.
"Because the judge holds an important office, he can't engage in civil disobedience," Parker said Friday. He pointed out that both the Utah Attorney General's Office and the Washington County attorney declined to prosecute Steed or his wives for bigamy because they were all consenting adults.
"The statute is never enforced. Why single out this judge for special treatment?" he said.
Pro-polygamy groups had hoped Steed's case would lead to the decriminalization of polygamy. Mary Batchelor with the group Principle Voices of Polygamy called it hypocritical.
"Judge Steed may not be prosecuted for having several wives, but ultimately his having multiple mistresses or committing adultery would not bring the same admonition or censure as this," she said. "Honestly, is the state going to fire judges who commit adultery? Would the state fire gay judges?"
For his part, Steed hopes polygamy is eventually decriminalized."I am hopeful that the court will eventually consider the issue of polygamy as an aspect of personal privacy, marital rights and religious freedom," he said in his statement Friday. "I am proud of my efforts to bring the issue before the court and the people of Utah."
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