Monday, July 11, 2016
3 People Behind the Effort to Remove Judge for Her Views on Marriage, How IS Gender Equality Bring Applied Here? So Forceing A Women Off The Bench IS Gender Equality?
Her cell phone rang while Judge Ruth Neely was hanging Christmas lights outside her home in Pinedale, Wyo. She didn’t notice that she had missed a call until she went inside to untangle a string of lights.
When Neely called back, the young man who answered identified himself as a reporter from the local newspaper. He told Neely he was doing a story on the administrative challenges of the recent legalization of same-sex marriage in Wyoming.
The two spoke for more than 20 minutes, reporter Ned Donovan told The Daily Signal, and then he asked the town judge whether she was “excited” about the prospect of solemnizing same-sex marriages.
“I will not able to do them,” Neely replied, according to the story Donovan later wrote. “We have at least one magistrate who will do same-sex marriages, but I will not be able to.”
Neely cited her religious belief that marriage is the union of one man and one woman.
The result of the interview Dec. 5, 2014, was a relatively short newspaper story, but it sparked an investigation of Neely’s fitness for office. A year and a half later, she is asking the Wyoming Supreme Court not to remove her from two separate judgeships—nor to enforce a fine of up to $40,000.
All this without a local citizen filing a complaint against the judge, who is active in her Lutheran church, and without her ever being asked to officiate at a same-sex wedding.
As Pinedale’s full-time municipal judge, Neely, who is in her early 60s, isn’t authorized to solemnize marriages. As a part-time circuit judge in Wyoming’s Sublette County, her lawyers say, agreeing to officiate at a wedding was up to her—as it is for other circuit judges.
The potential removal of Neely from both jobs was set in motion by three key players: Donovan, who later would call for the judge’s removal; Ana Cuprill, Wyoming’s top Democratic official, who emailed the reporter’s story to the state Commission on Judicial Conduct and Ethics; and Wendy Soto, executive director of that state agency and a former board member of Wyoming Equality, a statewide LGBT rights group.
As The Daily Signal previously reported, Neely’s lawyers on April 29 asked the state’s highest court to reject the judicial commission’s findings that she had violated rules of conduct and should be removed from the bench in both full-time and part-time capacities.
The commission’s response to Neely’s appeal is due June 16.
Among other things, Neely’s lawyers insist the judge is protected by both the state and U.S. constitutions. Wyoming’s religious freedom guarantees, they note, are among the strongest in the nation.
How did a well-liked and respected judge with more than 20 years of service in a tiny town south of Yellowstone Park wind up defending her own religious freedom to decline a request—not yet made—to marry a same-sex couple?
It began that Friday in early December 2014 when Donovan, then a 20-year-old reporter for the Pinedale Roundup, called Neely’s cell phone.
The Phone Interview
The Daily Signal assembled this sequence of events, based on documents in the case as well as a recent interview with Donovan:
When Neely returned his call, Donovan answered. Neely’s lawyers characterize Donovan as asking right off about the prospect of her officiating at a same-sex marriage. But Donovan insists he brought it up late in their interview.
Incorrectly assuming Neely was about to officiate at a gay marriage, Donovan told The Daily Signal, he posed the question that embroiled the judge in a fight to save her career.
Neely told Donovan that although religious beliefs precluded her from performing same-sex weddings, other local officials as well as clergy were willing to do so.
That same day, Ralph “Ed” Wood—a circuit judge as well as Pinedale’s town attorney of 17 years—performed the first same-sex marriage ceremony in Sublette County.
After answering Donovan’s questions, Neely testified, she began to think the reporter knew of her religious beliefs and intended to put them in a negative light.
Donovan, who says he is a Catholic and registered as a Republican in Sublette County, told The Daily Signal he may have had some idea from newsroom talk, but her religion wasn’t why he called the judge.
Neely called back the reporter about 20 minutes later, asking that he print only this response: “When law and religion conflict, choices have to be made. I have not yet been asked to perform a same-sex marriage.”
‘Happy Not to Publish’
Donovan, who never provided his version of events for the investigation, said he quickly consulted colleagues and a media lawyer about Neely’s request to take her earlier remarks off the record.
He called later to ask more questions, Neely said in an affidavit, and offered not to publish a story if she would agree to perform same-sex marriages. Neely said she declined further comment.
“As she’d already indicated a desire to change her comments, I was happy not to publish if the new comments meant she had no opposition [to officiating],” Donovan told The Daily Signal. “Not that I tried to bargain [or] blackmail her.”
On Dec. 9, the Sublette Examiner—sister publication to the Pinedale Roundup—published Donovan’s article. The story appeared online with the headline “Pinedale Judge Will Not Marry Same-Sex Couples.”
The 15-paragraph story quoted some of Neely’s earlier remarks as well as her later, formal statement. It incorrectly reported that “all judges are required to marry those who meet the legal requirements.”
“Everyone is welcome to have religious beliefs, but they are inherently personal, especially if you hold public office,” Donovan told The Daily Signal of the newsworthiness of his story.
He said he personally supports gay marriage, but also supports the right of clergy not to officiate.
In a May 3 tweet, one of several from him on the case, Donovan described Neely’s plight as “hilarious”: