Up to high court: Utah justices have 90 days to decide if Hildale man with three wives should lose job
PROVO – Judge Walter Steed says he’s living in a way that will help him attain the highest degree of glory in the next life while dispensing justice in this one.
Utah’s judicial watchdog, though, says the Hildale Justice Court judge is bringing his office into disrepute with his practice of polygamy – a violation of law by an official sworn to uphold it.
The question of whether Steed is lowering public esteem for the judiciary and should be removed from the bench is now in the hands of Utah Supreme Court justices, who heard arguments during a session Wednesday at the J. Reuben Clark School of Law at Brigham Young University.
Steed says he should remain a judge.
“As long as I do my job, why shouldn’t I?” he asked a crowd of reporters after the arguments.
Describing himself as a fundamentalist Mormon, Steed said he has taken three wives as a religious practice and that his lifestyle has no effect on his fairness as a judge. He contends that other jurists who are breaking the law are not being disciplined.
“Which is worse, a monogamist who doesn’t monog or a polygamist who really polygs?” Steed asked.
However, he doesn’t feel picked on.
“I feel like there’s an issue – the constitutionality of the bigamy statute – that needs to be decided,” the judge said.
One of his wives, Janet Jessop, described Steed as a wonderful husband and father and said that “everyone likes to live their religion and do what they think is right.”
Steed, a truck driver, was appointed in 1980 by the Hildale Town Council to the part-time judge position. He handles misdemeanor matters such as drunken-driving and marijuana cases.
The judge is a member of The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), which embraces plural marriage as a tenet of the faith. Thousands of FLDS members live in the twin cities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz.; British Columbia; and Texas.
Steed married Jessop in a legal 1965 ceremony and then later entered “spiritual marriages” with two of her sisters, Marilyn Jessop in 1975 and Viola Jessop in 1985. Steed and the three women were all adults when they married and he now has 32 children.
In Utah, a person who has a legal spouse and cohabitates with someone else can be charged with bigamy.
Tapestry Against Polygamy, a Salt Lake City-based group, filed a complaint against Steed in 2004 with the state Judicial Conduct Commission based on his plural marriage. The commission has recommended Steed’s removal from the bench to the high court, which makes the final decision.
At Wednesday’s session, Salt Lake City lawyer Rodney Parker, who represents Steed, noted that the Utah Attorney General’s Office and Washington County authorities have declined to prosecute the judge for bigamy and argued there should be no removal without criminal prosecution.
He also said the description of what actions bring a judicial office into disrepute and what mental state amounts to “willful” conduct is vague. Parker said enforcement of the bigamy statute can be arbitrary and what is considered disreputable in one community might not be considered wrong in another community.
Commission lawyer Colin Winchester acknowledged that bigamy prosecutions in Utah generally have targeted cases involving underage girls, abuse or tax fraud, not relationships of consenting adults. However, those serving in the judicial are in a special position, and the fact that many residents of Hildale support plural marriage makes no difference, he said.
“Judges are expected to live to a different standard,” Winchester said.
The Supreme Court has 90 days to decide the case.
In a separate case, the justices are considering a request to overturn the bigamy conviction of polygamist and former Hildale police officer Rodney Holm. Holm, who is represented by Parker, is asking the high court to lift the state’s ban on plural marriage, arguing he has a right to practice his religious belief in polygamy.
The Case So Far
* Tapestry Against Polygamy files a complaint in November 2004 with the state Judicial Conduct Commission against Hildale Justice Court Judge Walter Steed, calling for his removal from the bench for practicing polygamy.
* Steed’s attorney argues in January that the judge’s plural marriages have not affected his performance or impartiality. In February, the panel recommends that Steed be removed because he is violating Utah law.
* The Utah Supreme Court, which makes the final decision, hears arguments Wednesday and takes the case under consideration.