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Truth Stumbles In The Public Square . . . The Saga Of Judge Ruth Neely

November 6, 2017 Frontpage No Comments


By all indications Ruth Neely was a well-respected municipal court judge for the small Wyoming town of Pinedale. In her early 60s, Judge Neely had been appointed and reappointed by various mayors, and approved by city councils, since 1994, for over two decades. Without a law degree, she handled violations of city ordinances, such as parking infractions and barking dogs.
According to the Wyoming Supreme Court, “Judge Neely has an outstanding record and reputation, being recognized for her fairness and willingness to serve the public. The current mayor of Pinedale, Bob Jones, who has known Judge Neely for over ten years, states that ‘she has a sterling reputation in the community as a person of unswerving character and as an honest, careful, and fair judge’.”
There was one thing that she could not do as a municipal judge: She could not solemnize marriages. However, as luck would have it, the local circuit court judge had appointed her a part-time circuit court magistrate to help with incidental matters that came to the court. In this role she received no pay but was allowed to solemnize weddings.
How Judge Neely got before the Colorado’s Supreme Court is, as put by Carl R. Trueman in First Things, “[A] clear piece of ideological bullying based on a crafty piece of press entrapment working the usual angles in the current anti-culture.”
Judge Neely’s saga began in December of 2014 while she was hanging Christmas decorations outside her home. When she went inside she found a phone message from Ned Donovan, a reporter for the local newspaper, The Pinedale Roundup. Donovan told the judge that he was doing a story on same-sex marriage and judges who perform weddings and asked if she was “excited” about handling same-sex weddings.
According to the story that Donovan wrote, Judge Neely responded, “I will not do them. We have at least one magistrate who will do same-sex marriages, but I will not be able to.” The judge, a member of the conservative Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, said she believed in traditional marriage of one man and one woman.
After the interview, the judge called Donovan back and asked that her remarks be considered off the record. According to the judge, Donovan said he would if she would agree to do same-sex weddings.
After Donovan’s article was published it came to the attention of a top Democratic Party official who forwarded it to Wendy Soto, executive director of the state’s Commission on Judicial Conduct and Ethics, and who is, according to The Daily Signal, a former board member of Wyoming Equality, a LGBT rights group.
From the newspaper article a complaint was made and the commission began a formal investigation. And, as reported by The Daily Signal, a commission lawyer told the judge that if she resigned both judicial positions, municipal judge and unpaid part-time magistrate, admit wrongdoing and agree never to seek another judicial office, the commission would drop the matter. The judge refused. The commission then recommended that the state’s top court remove Judge Neely from both positions.
The judge, with the help of the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), appealed the commission’s recommendation to the Wyoming Supreme Court that, in a split decision, modified the recommendation and publicly censured the judge and ordered her either to stop performing all weddings or to include same-sex ceremonies.
In defense of the judge, her attorneys raised numerous arguments, including the fact that her statements were made in a telephone interview and were not part of a case, thus no one had been denied a wedding due to any refusal on her part. They also made the argument that under state law, magistrates authorized to solemnize marriages are not required to do so and may refuse for any reason.
Also, her defense raised issues of free speech and religion and her right to an accommodation for her beliefs. None of it went over well with the majority. Brushing aside Judge Neely’s arguments, the court ruled:
“This case is not about same-sex marriage or the reasonableness of religious beliefs. We recognize that ‘[m]any who deem same-sex marriage to be wrong reach that conclusion based on decent and honorable religious or philosophical premises, and neither they nor their beliefs are disparaged here.’ [Cite omitted.] 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.”
Then, after noting other states whose judicial ethics committees had opined in a similar manner as Wyoming’s, the court concluded by saying, “Our conclusion that Judge Neely’s expressed refusal to conduct same-sex marriages violates the Code of Judicial Conduct is in line with every other tribunal that has considered the question….Five state advisory commissions offered opinions, consistently stating that a judge may not perform judicial functions for some parties while declining to perform them for same-sex couples without violating the Code of Judicial Conduct.”
The majority also found that Judge Neely’s actions gave the appearance of impropriety, “Actual improprieties include violations of law, court rules, or provisions of this Code. The test for appearance of impropriety is whether the conduct would create in reasonable minds a perception that the judge violated this Code or engaged in other conduct that reflects adversely on the judge’s honesty, impartiality, temperament, or fitness to serve as a judge.”
The court then held that Judge Neely should receive a public censure, but allowed her to keep her job as part-time magistrate only if she performed same-sex weddings if she performed any weddings at all, and also allowed her to keep her municipal judgeship, since its functions did not include presiding at weddings.
That did not sit well with the two dissenters, who strongly rejected the majority’s opinion.
“This case is of the utmost importance to the State of Wyoming. It is a case confronting new and challenging issues, where the parts of the legal landscape recently changed dramatically and rapidly. Contrary to the position asserted by the majority opinion, this case is about religious beliefs and same-sex marriage. The issues considered here determine whether there is a religious test for who may serve as a judge in Wyoming. They consider whether a judge may be precluded from one of the functions of office not for her actions, but for her statements about her religious views. The issues determine whether there is room in Wyoming for judges with various religious beliefs.
“The issues here decide whether Wyoming’s constitutional provisions about freedom of religion and equality of every person can coexist. And, this case determines whether there are job requirements on judges beyond what the legislature has specified.”
As to the appearance of impropriety raised by the majority, the dissent argued: “[I]f appearances were gauged without reference to the full and true facts, then false appearances of impropriety could be manufactured with ease by anyone with personal or political animus toward a judge. If such were the case, then the hope of an independent judiciary would have been less than an evanescent dream, it would have been cruel charade and a dangerous snare for an ethical and unsuspecting judiciary.
“Such a reasonable person would know that Wyoming law does not require Judge Neely to perform any marriage. He or she would know that the law prohibits judges and other public officials in Wyoming from denying marriage to same-sex couples, and no same-sex couple has been denied marriage by or because of Judge Neely’s statements.
“Further, a reasonable person would know that there is no indication that any same-sex couple is likely to be denied or delayed in obtaining a civil marriage because of Judge Neely’s statements or religious beliefs. A reasonable person would know that if asked to perform such a marriage, Judge Neely would assist in finding an appropriate officiant, and that there is no shortage of such officiants.”
The ADF has appealed Judge Neely’s case to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing, “This Court should grant review because this case presents important free-exercise and free-speech issues. Millions of Catholics, Protestants, Mormons, Jews, and Muslims hold the same religious beliefs that led to Judge Neely’s punishment. The Wyoming Supreme Court applied rules based on the American Bar Association’s (ABA) Model Code of Judicial Conduct and held that it is unethical for judges to voice — let alone live consistently with — those religious beliefs. Because the judicial rules in most states are based on the ABA’s model code, the decision below threatens the expressive and religious freedom of judges throughout the country.”
As of this writing, the court has not acted on the petition.
This case points out two things: First, the lengths that pro-LGBT activists will go to “punish” supporters of traditional marriage; not only will they deny them a forum but they will actively seek to ruin their careers.
Such was seen in the run-up to California’s Proposition 8, the state’s constitutional amendment that sought to ban same-sex marriage (it passed, but was later held unconstitutional). Signers of the petition to put Proposition 8 on the ballot were singled out by LGBT groups, harassed, reported to their employers as “haters,” boycotts were started against businesses whose executives signed the petition and in one very famous case, Mozilla co-founder and CEO, Brendan Eich, was forced out of his position over his support for traditional marriage.
And just a few weeks ago, two Democratic U.S. senators, California’s Dianne Feinstein and Illinois’ Dick Durbin, during a confirmation hearing for Notre Dame Law Professor Amy Barrett, President Trump’s nominee for the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, quizzed the nominee about her Catholic beliefs. Feinstein stated: “The [Catholic] dogma lives within you.”
Feinstein’s spokeswoman later said, “Professor Barrett has argued that a judge’s faith should affect how they approach certain cases. Based on this, Sen. Feinstein questioned her about whether she could separate her personal views from the law, particularly regarding women’s reproductive rights.”
So, people who believe in traditional moral values should be kept off the courts — find them, single them out, and destroy their careers, seems to be the mantra from the left. We may be thankful that the U.S. Senate has confirmed. Judge Barrett
Of course, along with all this is the growing intolerance for anyone who seeks to bring his religious beliefs into the public forums. Our First Amendment right to freedom of religion has always meant that we were not only free to believe, but to live out that belief. Apparently, according to the left, that is no longer possible.
It appears that we might be entering the time the Prophet Isaiah wrote about in the eighth century B.C.: “Right is repelled, and justice stands far off; for truth stumbles in the public square, uprightness cannot enter. Honesty is lacking, and the man who turns from evil is despoiled.”
Brace yourselves for the despoiling. The left has its pitchforks out and we are the target.

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