SUBLETTE COUNTY – The Wyoming Supreme Court published its 56-page split decision Tuesday regarding Pinedale judge and circuit-court magistrate Ruth Neely’s appeal of a state board’s finding against her.
The split vote and written majority and minority opinions show how deeply divided the justices were themselves on the argued issues of religious freedoms and judicial ethics. While the majority held out that “a fair and impartial judiciary” is of utmost importance, the minority argued this case is in fact “all about religious beliefs.”
In January 2016, Neely appealed the finding of the Wyoming Commission on Judicial Conduct and Ethics that she had violated its rules by stating to a newspaper reporter that her religious beliefs would prevent her from marrying same-sex couples as a magistrate – although she had not been asked to do so and would help them find someone else.
The commission had recommended her removal as both municipal judge and part-time circuit-court magistrate. The Wyoming Supreme Court heard oral arguments last August and voted, 3-2, in its Tuesday ruling that she violated Rules 1.2, 2.2 and 2.3 of the Wyoming Code of Judicial Conduct.
The court was not bound to accept the commission’s recommended sanctions, justices agreed, “and although we have determined that discipline is appropriate, we stop short of removing her from either office.”
Instead, the justices searched to “narrowly tailor” a sanction to balance Neely’s freedoms with the need for the public to respect its judges, they said. They also considered that she has not “recognized the wrongful nature of her conduct, nor has she indicated that she would consider performing same-sex marriages.”
The majority opinion closes: “We conclude that Judge Ruth Neely shall receive a public censure; Judge Neely shall either perform no marriage ceremonies or she shall perform marriage ceremonies regardless of the couple’s sexual orientation, and each party (to the appeal) will bear its own fees and costs.”
The majority opinion, written by Justice Kate Fox for herself, Chief Justice James Burke and Justice William Hill, stated that Neely’s religious freedoms were not the issue – that it was her unwillingness as a public official to follow a law that applies to all Wyoming citizens by separating out one group.
“This case is not about same-sex marriage or the reasonableness of religious beliefs,” it states. “… This case is also not about imposing a religious test on judges. Rather, it is about maintaining the public’s faith in an independent and impartial judiciary that conducts its judicial functions according to the rule of law, independent of outside influences, including religion, and without regard to whether a law is popular or unpopular.”
For the complete article see the 03-10-2017 issue.
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