A Pinedale magistrate who said she would not perform same-sex marriages is fighting a state judicial ethics commission’s recommendation to remove her from office.
The Wyoming Supreme Court will decide if Pinedale municipal judge and circuit court magistrate Ruth Neely should be removed from her position.
The Wyoming Commission on Judicial Conduct and Ethics began investigating Neely in January 2015. The investigation was prompted by statements made by Neely to a Pinedale Roundup reporter, which were published in a newspaper article. After a federal judge in Casper struck down Wyoming’s gay marriage ban, Neely told the reporter that she would not be able to perform same-sex marriages.
“When law and religion conflict, choices have to be made,” she was quoted as saying.
On March 4, 2015, the Commission served Neely with a notice of commencement of formal proceedings, which is a disciplinary proceeding. The notice alleged she violated six separate canons, or rules of judicial conduct. The Commission alleges Neely acted with prejudice based on sexual orientation, refused to uphold the law and acted improperly.
During the proceedings, the Commission told Neely it wouldn’t prosecute if she would agree to resign both of her positions and never again seek judicial office in Wyoming, as well as admit wrongdoing, according to a brief by Neely’s attorneys filed with the Supreme Court. Neely declined to do so.
This February, the Commission asked Neely if she would publicly apologize and agree to perform same-sex marriages. Neely responded by saying that she could not perform such marriages because doing so would violate her religious convictions.
Soon thereafter, the Commission filed a recommendation with the Wyoming Supreme Court asking the court to remove Neely from her positions as municipal court judge and circuit court magistrate.
Last week, Neely’s attorneys asked the Supreme Court to reject the Commission’s recommendation. Nweely is being represented by several attorneys from the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian legal group.
The attorneys argue Neely has discretion when exercising her authority to perform marriages and that she could turn away a couple for any number of reasons. They noted that Neely has not been asked to perform a same-sex marriage. Neely has also been suspended from her role as a magistrate by Circuit Court Judge Curt Haws and is not currently performing marriages.
Neely’s attorneys further argue her authority to perform marriages does not apply to her role as a municipal court judge and that she has not violated any judicial rules within that position. They also argue the Commission’s actions violate Neely’s constitutional rights to free speech and free exercise of religion.
Neely’s attorneys also express concern that under the Commission’s insistence, any judge in Wyoming who shares Neely’s beliefs about marriage may be removed from his or her position.
“This case threatens any judge who holds and communicates views about numerous potentially controversial topics,” the attorneys write.
Ana Cuprill, the Wyoming Democratic Party chairwoman who originally informed the Commission of Neely’s statements in the newspaper article, said she agrees with the Commission’s recommendation.
“My concern in passing on that information was that I felt that any judgment that Judge Neely would have in the future might be challenged if there was some sort of an issue with someone who is LGBT and felt prejudiced and that would be a liability in our town,” Cuprill said.
She said she forwarded the newspaper article out of her concern for the community of Pinedale.
“I was concerned when she said she was not going to follow the law,” Cuprill said.
Neely has been a municipal judge in Pinedale for over 21 years and has performed marriages as a magistrate for over a decade.
According to state statute, the Supreme Court may suspend a judicial officer from practicing law in Wyoming and may remove a judicial officer from office or impose other discipline for a violation of the code of judicial conduct.
A phone message left for Neely at the Pinedale Town Hall was unreturned Friday. A message left for her attorneys at the Alliance Defending Freedom was also not returned.