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About Utah: Judge caught in crosshairs of public opinion

Do you ever wonder if you were from another planet, or even another state, how you might react if you were traveling through Utah and saw a headline such as the one that appeared in last Monday's Deseret Morning News?:

"Polygamist unfit for bench?"

The story was about Walter Steed, by all accounts a peace-loving, non-rabble-rousing middle-aged man whose only fling outside accepted convention is the fact that, by the way, he has three wives.

The question, as summed up in the aforementioned headline, is whether Walter Steed, while in undisputed violation of statutes against bigamy (being married to more than one person at the same time), should be able to dispense justice as a municipal judge in the southern Utah town of Hildale.

It is not unlike asking if you swing at and miss the ball three times, does that mean you're out?

But as the recent baseball playoffs showed, even simple answers aren't always that simple (for reference, see A.J. Pierzynski of the Chicago White Sox). And when it comes to polygamy and Utah, simple went out of the equation long before Walter Steed and his wives started having their 32 kids.

For proof of that, consider that Steed is ALREADY a judge, and has been since 1980.

It only took 25 years for someone to finally ask the question if he really should be.


Just as incredibly, or maybe more so, the Utah Supreme Court is having to think about its answer.

Nothing personal against Walter Steed, his three wives, his 32 children or the religious affiliation that dictates his lifestyle, but exactly what part of "illegal activity" doesn't the Supreme Court understand?

At the high court's hearing held last Wednesday in Provo, much rhetoric revolved around whether Steed has violated the judicial mandate that holds judges to a higher standard than others to avoid bringing the office they hold into disrepute. As if that's the issue.

How about the basic standard of obeying the law?

It's true, a mostly blind eye has been turned toward those practicing polygamy in Utah for at least a half-century, paving the way for a town like Hildale to even exist. Prosecuting someone for following their religious beliefs is problematic, at best, and downright cruel at worst.

But it's also true, as Tom Green would attest from his prison cell, that the blind eye asks in return that those who choose to practice polygamy practice it subtly. If you do it, don't flaunt it.

Therein lies the problem for Walter Steed. How can you be subtle about lawlessness when you're not just a public figure, but a public figure whose job is to dispense justice?

Isn't justice supposed to be blind?

How can you sentence a person to 30 days for, say, speeding, and not sentence yourself at the same time? How can you dismiss another person's "mitigating circumstance" for violating the law — maybe they insist they were speeding because of what they consider a perfectly understandable reason (they left the iron on at home) — and not be accused of having a double standard when your own mitigating circumstance (it's my religion) for violating the law not only gets you off the hook, but lets you be a judge?

As the visitor from outer space, or even another state, might scratch their head and ask: How can you be a justice in a state that couldn't become one without stopping what you continue to do?


Lee Benson's column runs Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Please send e-mail to benson@desnews.com and faxes to 801-237-2527.