THE BUZZ 3: Ruthless Judgment

By on August 31, 2016

Why a Pinedale traffic court judge has been thrust into the national spotlight over same-sex marriage.

Judge Ruth Neely garnered national headlines for her refusal to perform same-sex marriage in Pinedale.  Her case is being tried in the Wyoming  Supreme Court. (Photo: Town of Pinedale)

Judge Ruth Neely garnered national headlines for her refusal to perform same-sex marriage in Pinedale.  Her case is being tried in the Wyoming  Supreme Court. (Photo: Town of Pinedale)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – The Wyoming State Supreme Court is hearing arguments on a case that is likely to have nationwide implications over whether a judge can keep her post on the bench and still enjoy religious liberty. The circumstances are reminiscent of Kim Davis, the county clerk in Oklahoma who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples stating her personal religious beliefs.

Many in the nation are calling this a watershed case with significant, potential precedent-setting impact for battle lines drawn between the conservative right and liberal left—between religious freedom and gay rights. And it’s happening right here in Wyoming.

Judge Ruth Neely is a Municipal Judge and Circuit Court Magistrate in Pinedale. She’s currently under fire from the Wyoming Commission on Judicial Conduct and Ethics (CJCE)—a state committee that has recommended her removal, a lifetime ban from the judiciary, and a fines totaling up to $40,000. Neely is currently suspended from her role as a magistrate. As a municipal judge, she has presided over mainly traffic court cases and the like for more than 20 years. As a part-time magistrate, Neely could be asked to perform a marriage as part of her duties but is not required to do so.

The controversy was ignited two years ago by a cub reporter for the Sublette Examiner who asked Neely whether she was “excited” about the prospect of marrying same-sex couples just months after a federal judge in Casper struck down Wyoming’s gay marriage ban. (The U.S. Supreme Court later ruled in June 2015 that same-sex couples have a right to marry).

The reporter, then-20-year-old Ned Donovan, printed Neely’s response in an article headlined, “Pinedale judge will not marry same-sex couples,” on December 11, 2014.

In the piece, Neely is quoted as saying, “I will not be able to do them. We have at least one magistrate who will do same-sex marriages but I will not be able to. When law and religion conflict, choices have to be made.”

Neely, a longtime member of the Lutheran Church in Pinedale, cited her own religious objections to same-sex marriage. She pointed out that she has never been asked to marry a same-sex couple. Incidentally, the first same-sex marriage in Sublette County was performed by Ralph “Ed” Wood, a circuit judge, the same day Donovan’s article came out.

Pinedale mayor Bob Jones immediately attempted to downplay any controversy. The Examiner quoted him as saying, “As the town judge, she does not perform marriages, that is not part of the description of the work of a town judge … [Performing marriages] is something she took on herself years ago to try and … provide more services to the town.”

Jones added, “Until we have a problem I don’t see any point in creating a problem.”

But problems for Neely were only beginning. The article caught the attention of Wyoming Democratic Party Chair Ana Cuprill, who sent a copy to CJCE executive director Wendy Soto. The commission took action, once offering to let Neely off the hook if she resigned from her position, pledged not to seek judicial office again and admitted that she had been wrong.

Neely refused and her case was taken up by attorneys at the conservative Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). Neely’s lawyers say the judge exercised her right to free speech by expressing her opinion on gay marriage, and had never shown any bias or prejudice in presiding over any matters of law before her.

“This case presents significant First Amendment issues,” ADF attorney James Campbell testified last week to the state’s top five judges. “In 21 years on the bench, Judge Neely has never faced allegations that she’s been unfair to anyone.”

CJCE lawyer Patrick Dixon countered that Neely’s private religious beliefs are superseded by a higher code of conduct required from all judges.

A decision is expected sometime in September. PJH

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