High court to hear arguments on S. Utah judge with 3 wives
An admitted polygamist justice court judge in southern Utah contends he shouldn’t be ousted from the bench for practicing consensual bigamy. He argues his marital status is protected by the U.S. and state constitutions and doesn’t affect his judicial work.
But the state’s judicial watchdog agency insists Walter Steed’s behavior interferes with justice and brings a judicial office into disrepute.
The Judicial Conduct Commission has asked the Utah Supreme Court to remove Steed from office. The high court will hear the case Wednesday in the J. Reuben Clark School of Law at Brigham Young University.
Steed has been a municipal court justice in the largely polygamous community of Hildale since 1980. He has admitted he engaged in consensual bigamy with three adult women with whom he has a total of 32 children.
He married the first wife in a state-recognized civil ceremony in 1965 and married the other two in 1975 and 1985, respectively, in religious ceremonies of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which encourages polygamous or plural marriages.
The commission contends Steed’s marriages violate the state’s bigamy law, which forbids taking another spouse while still married, purporting to marry another individual, or cohabiting with another person. Bigamy is a third-degree felony.
“So far, no federal court and no Utah state court has held that bigamy is protected by either constitution,” even if it is practiced by consenting adults as part of their religious faith, said Colin Winchester, attorney for the JCC.
In fact, Winchester said, the Utah Supreme Court refused to recognize constitutional protection for bigamy in the conviction of polygamist Tom Green, who currently is in prison after being convicted of bigamy and other charges.
Even if an appellate court did rule that bigamy is constitutionally protected, it still is not acceptable for judges, Winchester said.
Judges must abide by a code of judicial conduct that governs both personal and professional behavior — some of which actually limits the rights a judge has compared to those of other citizens.
For example, a judge can’t take part in political activity.
“You and I as citizens are constitutionally allowed to participate in the political process,” Winchester said. “The code of judicial conduct says ‘no’ to that for judges.”
The code also prohibits breaking the law, which would logically include laws prohibiting bigamy.
“Judges are held to a higher standard,” Winchester said. “Our society demands that those who sit in judgment of others conduct their personal and professional lives in an appropriate manner. We do not want them to degrade or demean the judicial office they hold.”
Steed’s attorney Rodney Parker points out that both the Utah attorney general and Washington County attorney were informed of Steed’s bigamy, and both declined to prosecute him.
The JCC also said a judge who commits a crime lowers public esteem for that particular judicial office and, in doing so, reduces the public esteem and effectiveness of the entire judiciary.
Parker, on the other hand, said Steed’s exercise of his constitutional rights cannot legitimately be described as lowering the esteem of his office. He said the case is one that involves the constitutional guarantees of liberty, freedom of conscience and freedom of association.
However, Parker argues in another case, and refers to that one briefly in Steed’s defense, that Utah adopted its anti-polygamy constitutional provision under duress in order to obtain statehood.
The argument is, Parker said, that the requirement that polygamy be prohibited was imposed on Utahns under pressure to get statehood and puts Utah on a different footing than other states when it comes to its ability to control its internal affairs regarding the institution of marriage.
“The constitutional ban does not create a crime. It merely prohibits the state government from recognizing polygamous marriages as civil marriages,” Parker said. “Bigamy was made a crime by the Legislature.”
Parker argues that Utah’s bigamy law violates the equal protection clauses of the U.S. and Utah constitutions. “Under the liberty provisions of the constitution, this type of private behavior is protected,” Parker said.
“Essentially it has to do with the classification of people who choose to have relationships like that, classifying them based on whether they label the relationship marriage or shacking up,” Parker said. “The bigamy statute, which criminalizes ‘purporting to marry,’ singles people out for different treatment based on that label. We have some statutory argument as to what the word ‘marry’ means.”
Bigamy laws exist, Parker said, to prevent individuals from being duped into deceptive relationships. But in this case, Parker said Steed’s second and third wives, both of whom were adults at the time of their religious ceremonies, knew the situation and acknowledged their relationships would not be recognized as marriages by the state.
Another provision of Utah’s bigamy law forbids cohabitation, but Parker said that legal language is extremely vague.
In other states, bigamous cohabitation is not a crime, but it is illegal to purport to marry a second person, he said. An individual who marries another spouse in another state could be prosecuted for purporting to marry, but not for cohabitation.
“In Utah, you can be prosecuted for the bigamous cohabitation without reference to the ‘purporting,’ ” Parker said. “To have the statute set up this way gives the government the opportunity to selectively pick off people it doesn’t like and yet leaves 99 percent of the people alone.”
One thing both Parker and Winchester agree on is that this is purely a case about bigamy, and by extension, polygamy — but nothing else.
That is unlike other polygamy-related controversies that have been clouded by additional issues, such as allegations of welfare fraud, child abuse or tax evasion, as well as criminal prosecutions for charges such as sex with a minor.
In Steed’s situation, no one is claiming he has done anything wrong other than engage in consensual bigamy as part of his religious faith while holding judicial office.