SALT LAKE CITY – A small-town judge ordered removed from office because he has three wives faced a hearing before the state Supreme Court on Wednesday in his bid to remain on the bench.
Those pursuing the case against Judge Walter Steed (search) say his plural marriage creates a conflict: After taking an oath to uphold the law, he shouldn't be breaking it.
"You can't have it both ways," said Colin Winchester, the executive director of the state's Judicial Conduct Commission (search).
The commission issued an order seeking Steed's removal from the bench in February, after a 14-month investigation determined Steed was a polygamist and as such had violated Utah's bigamy law.
Bigamy is a third-degree felony in Utah (search) punishable by up to five years in prison, but Steed's attorney, Rod Parker, said Utah's attorney general and the Washington County prosecutor have declined to prosecute his client.
Steed has served for 25 years in the southern border town of Hildale (search), handing down rulings in drunken driving and domestic violence cases. Parker contends the bigamy statute is only enforced in rare cases, such as when someone has been duped into marrying someone who already has a wife.
"There is no allegation that it's affecting his performance on the bench," Parker said. "It really is truly only about his private conduct."
The complaint against Steed was filed with the commission in November 2003 by Tapestry Against Polygamy (search), an advocacy group founded by ex-polygamous women who organized to help others leave the handful of secretive religious colonies that adhere to the practice.
Plural marriage was an original tenet of the mainline Mormon church, but the faith abandoned the practice as a condition of statehood in 1890. About 30,000 polygamists, who split from the main church into various fundamentalist sects more than 100 years ago, are believed to be living in Utah.
Steed legally married his first wife in 1965, according to court documents. The second and third wives were married -- or "sealed" as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (search) refers to it -- to him in religious ceremonies in 1975 and 1985. The three women are biological sisters and no one in the family was expecting that the second and third marriages would be civilly recognized.
"I think it's an equal protection problem," Parker said.
The state Supreme Court's chief justice, Christine Durham, opted not to place Steed on administrative leave during the investigation.