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John Hollenhorst ReportingJudge Walter Steed, Polygamist: "Which is worse, a monogamist that doesn't monog or a polygamist that really polygs? Do you think there are other judges breaking the law?"
A judge with three wives is fighting to keep his job. The Utah Supreme Court is faced with a decision: can a practicing polygamist sit on the bench in judgment of others? Judge Walter Steed has been on the bench for a quarter of a century and for all that time he's also been a polygamist.
The basic question is whether Judge Steed brings disrepute to the judiciary by flouting the laws against polygamy. The Judicial Conduct Commission ruled that he does, and wants the Supreme Court to boot Steed from his bench in Hildale.
In his own jurisdiction, Judge Steed may not be considered disreputable. Most residents of Hildale practice polygamy and consider fugitive Warren Jeffs a prophet. But disrepute is a statewide issue for the Judicial Conduct Commission.
Colin Winchester, Attorney for Judicial Conduct Commission: "A judge who does not follow the law and live his life above repute, both professionally and personally, makes the judiciary as a whole look bad, people lose respect for the judicial branch."
Judge Steed was in attendance as the Supreme Court took up his case. He acknowledges three wives, one civil, two spiritual. He argues a constitutional right to follow the teachings of Joseph Smith.
Judge Walter Steed, Polygamist: "If that's a law that has to be lived to receive the highest degree of glory in the celestial kingdom, then it ought to be legal."
In the hearing justices seemed skeptical that a judge can sit comfortably on the bench as a lawbreaker, even one with good intentions.
Justice Ronald E. Nehring, Utah Supreme Court: "Can a judge be civilly disobedient without putting his judicial office at risk?"
Rodney Parker, Attorney for Judge Steed: "Judges, I think, have constitutional rights the same as all citizens have constitutional rights."
Colin Winchester: "Even if the supreme court says, 'you're right, Judge Steed, you do have a constitutional right,' that doesn't make a difference. Because he's a judge he's bound by the code of judicial conduct. There are all sorts of behaviors that are constitutionally protected for you and me, that judge's don't get to play in."
Judge Steed was asked what he'd do if he had to choose between his part-time judgeship or his plural wives.
Judge Walter Steed: "That wouldn't be a very hard decision. I would certainly sacrifice the $400 a month."
Steed says some other judges cohabitate or commit adultery without facing disciplinary action. But he says he doesn't really feel picked on; he welcomes a test of the constitutional issue, which he considers of utmost importance.