A small-town judge with three wives was ordered removed from the bench by the Utah Supreme Court on Friday.
The court unanimously agreed with the findings of the state’s Judicial Conduct Commission, which recommended the removal of Judge Walter Steed for violating the state’s bigamy law.
Steed has served for 25 years on the Justice Court in the polygamist community of Hildale in southern Utah, where he ruled on such matters as drunken driving and domestic violence cases.
A year ago, the commission issued an order seeking Steed’s removal from the bench, after a 14-month investigation determined Steed was a polygamist and had violated Utah’s bigamy law.
Bigamy is a third-degree felony in Utah punishable by up to five years in prison and up to $5,000 in fines.
“Judge Steed’s relationship with his three plural wives for more than 20 years clearly runs afoul of the prohibition,” the ruling said. “When the law is violated or ignored by those charged by society with the fair and impartial enforcement of the law, the stability of our society is placed at undue risk.”
The initial complaint against Steed was filed with the commission in November 2003 by Tapestry Against Polygamy, a group founded by former polygamous women who help others leave the secretive religious colonies.
Three wives, 32 kids
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 refers to it — to him in religious ceremonies in 1975 and 1985. The three women are sisters.
Steed has 32 children by the three women, according to court documents.
A receptionist at the Judicial Conduct Commission said neither the commission nor its attorney on the case, Colin Winchester, would comment.
Attorneys for Steed scheduled a news conference for later Friday.
In the court’s November hearing, justices focused their questions on two issues: whether Steed’s conduct impugns the judicial office and whether he should be removed from the bench if he has not been criminally tried and convicted of bigamy.
Friday’s decision did not address the trial-and-conviction issue. It only said that the illegal behavior is something Steed acknowledged and that he “has given every indication that he intends to continue his ‘plural marriage’ arrangement.”
Plural marriage holdouts
Plural marriage was an original tenet of the mainline Mormon church, but the faith abandoned the practice in 1890. About 30,000 polygamists, who split from the main church into various fundamentalist sects, are believed to be living in Utah, the Southwest, Mexico and Canada.
Justice Court judges are appointed to four-year terms by city councils or county commissions to handle class B and C misdemeanor infractions, charges with penalties that don’t exceed up to six months in jail or $1,000 in fines.
Judges are not required to have any legal education or training prior to appointment. A truck driver by trade, Steed was paid a few hundred dollars monthly for serving in the part-time position.