Hildale judge resigns as asked Polygamist: The Utah Supreme Court rules the 25-year veteran must quit By Brooke Adams ~ The Salt Lake Tribune
With pride but not defiance, Walter K. Steed canceled hearings set for today and ended his 25-year stint as Hildale's justice court judge after a Utah Supreme Court opinion found he flouted state law by openly living with three wives.
In an opinion issued Friday, the high court agreed with the Judicial Conduct Commission that Steed's polygamous lifestyle had brought disrepute to the office and that he must step down.
"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," the court said. "A judge ignores the clearly stated criminal prohibitions of the law at his or her peril."
"Civil disobedience carries consequences for a judge that may not be applicable to other citizens," the court said. When judicial officers violate or ignore laws, "the stability of our society is placed at undue risk."
Steed said in a brief written statement Friday that his religious beliefs compel him to practice plural marriage and that doing so did not affect his ability to mete out justice. He also said he accepted and respected the ruling but had hoped the court would take up the constitutionality of the ban on polygamy.
"I am hopeful that the court will eventually consider the issue of polygamy as an aspect of personal privacy, marital rights and religious freedom," Steed said. "I am proud of my effort to bring the issue before the court and the people of Utah."
Steed belongs to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), which practices an early version of Mormonism that includes the practice of polygamy.
Steed married Janet Jessop in a legal ceremony in 1965. He entered "spiritual" marriages with two of her sisters, Marilyn Jessop in 1975 and Viola Jessop in 1985; all were adults. The unions resulted in 32 children.
Colin R. Winchester, attorney for the conduct commission, had no comment on the 5-0 decision written by Associate Chief Justice Michael J. Wilkins.
Tapestry Against Polygamy, based in Salt Lake City, filed a complaint in 2003 against Steed with the commission, which subsequently recommended the Supreme Court remove him from the bench. Members were thrilled by the ruling.
"It is a healthy sign of things to come," said co-founder Rowenna Erickson. "Something really needs to be done about polygamy.
Attorney Doug White, who represents Tapestry, said courts have now ruled that polygamists cannot serve as either police officers or judges.
"The only other officer of the court is a lawyer," he said. "You've got to ask yourself if you can't be a policeman and you can't be a judge, why can you be a polygamist and an attorney? It looks to me like the Utah State Bar has something to discuss."
Rod Parker, Steed's attorney, said an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court was unlikely.
Parker had argued that the state arbitrarily enforces polygamy, and said Friday that the last time the state prosecuted a bigamy case was in the 1950s.
"If we are talking about a statute that is never enforced, then we have to say why should this judge be singled out for special treatment when it is a statute that no one is forced to obey?" Parker said.
There are other laws that are regularly not enforced, he said, the most obvious case being the anti-sodomy statute. He also had argued that Steed should not be removed without a criminal prosecution and the opportunity to defend himself.
Parker said the Supreme Court's ruling was "a decision about judges," not the constitutionality of the ban on plural marriage between consenting adults. "It tells us nothing about what the court is thinking about polygamy."
That will come when the justices decide on a request to overturn the bigamy conviction of polygamist and former Hildale police officer Rodney Holm, whom Parker also represents. That case was argued 16 months ago.
Neither the state nor Washington County has ever moved to prosecute Steed for bigamy during the years he served as a justice court judge. Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff said Friday he has no intention of going after Steed and that his office will continue to focus its limited resources on serious crimes in polygamist communities such as child abuse, domestic violence and fraud.
Richard Schwermer, assistant court administrator, said there had been no complaints about Steed's decisions over the years and that he was a "nice guy, always cooperative. He was never deceptive or deceitful about what his status was."
A truck driver by trade, Steed has served since 1980 in the part-time judge position, holding court twice a month to hear misdemeanor cases, most of them traffic violations. He was paid a little over $300 a month, Parker said.
Justice court judges are appointed by city councils and must complete a four-day training course and pass a test before taking office. Hildale Mayor David Zitting said Friday he was unsure when the council would appoint a replacement for Steed.
"It is just a matter of finding someone who would be willing to [serve] and to go through the training requirements," he said. The next training session is scheduled for April.
Zitting said it would be no problem finding someone who is not a polygamist, as Hildale did when it replaced its former police chief, also a polygamist.
The FLDS have about 8,000 members in the adjoining towns of Hildale and Colorado City, Ariz., and have been under increasing scrutiny by the states of Utah and Arizona. Parker said the community is "hunkered down. They are just waiting to see what happens."
Arizona has taken over the public school district formerly run by FLDS members, charged eight men with entering plural marriages with underage girls, and charged FLDS president Warren Jeffs with arranging a plural marriage between a 16-year-old girl and a married 28-year-old man. Jeffs is wanted on a federal charge of fleeing prosecution on that charge.
Last May, the Utah Attorney General's Office asked a court to put the faith's United Effort Plan Trust, which holds most property in the twin cities, under court oversight, arguing its assets were in jeopardy because of civil lawsuits filed against Jeffs and the FLDS church.