The state Judicial Conduct Commission has rightly recommended that Walter K. Steed, justice court judge in the polygamous community of Hildale, be removed from the bench for the simple reason that he is openly breaking Utah’s anti-bigamy law.
Steed has three wives and 32 children. Confronted by the commission, he not only admitted to being a polygamist but said he has no intention of changing his family situation. Since taking more than one wife is clearly against the law, the Utah Supreme Court should remove Steed. The state cannot allow the part-time judge, who has taken an oath to uphold the law and mete out justice against lawbreakers, to hold the position while continuing to live as a scofflaw himself.
Steed was appointed to the bench by the Hildale Town Council in 1981. In 1985 he took his second wife in a religious ceremony conducted in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. For 20 years, while openly practicing polygamy, he has had authority to rule in cases of class B and C misdemeanors, violations of ordinances, small claims and infractions committed in Hildale, which, with the adjacent Arizona border town of Colorado City, is the largest polygamous enclave in the state.
Steed is not facing criminal charges for bigamy. Apparently he handles his part-time judicial duties with competence and his wives were of legal age when he married them. But all that does not excuse a person in Steed’s position from being accountable to upholding the law. Allowing Steed to stay on as a judge would make the state appear to condone a lifestyle that, while it is defended as a constitutionally protected religious practice, is, nevertheless, illegal.
Last year, Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff filed charges of bigamy and sexual misconduct with a minor against Rodney Holm, a Hildale resident and a police officer in neighboring Colorado City. Holm was prosecuted because of his relationship with his third plural wife, Ruth Stubbs, whom Holm married when she was 16 – and because Holm was a police officer. Holm was convicted and lost his job.
The situation with Steed is similar. He is an officer of the court, just as Holm was a law officer, and he must be held to a higher standard of conduct than the neighbors on whom he sits in judgment.
Shurtleff has said his office will not actively prosecute polygamist members of the Fundamentalist Church in Hildale-Colorado City unless they are breaking other laws by abusing children or wives, committing rape, incest or welfare fraud.
Nevertheless, the state cannot continue to turn a blind eye to a Utah justice court judge who is an unapologetic bigamist.