Her cell phone rang while Judge Ruth Neely was hanging Christmas lights outside her home in Pinedale, Wyoming. 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”:
Will explain in more detail tomorrow. But it's pretty hilarious.
— Ned Donovan (@Ned_Donovan) May 3, 2016
As a municipal judge since 1994, Neely was appointed by Pinedale’s mayor and confirmed by the town council. Successive Pinedale mayors have said her religion doesn’t interfere with her work, according to court papers.
The Christmas Party
After reading the news story, Circuit Judge Curt Haws met with Neely and said he had yet to receive guidance through the state’s judicial system on the subject of same-sex marriage.
Readers of Donovan’s story included Cuprill, a Pinedale resident and county librarian who was then deputy chairman of the Wyoming Democratic Party.
Soon after, Cuprill said in a deposition, she attended a Christmas party at the Cheyenne home of Soto, executive director of the state Commission on Judicial Conduct and Ethics.
Also at the party was Jeran Artery, chairman of Wyoming Equality, which advocates on behalf of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender residents.
At Artery’s request, Soto had served on Wyoming Equality’s board from 2011 to 2013. That LGBT advocacy role overlapped for more than a year with her top staff job at the Commission on Judicial Conduct and Ethics, which she joined in June 2012.
Trained as a paralegal, Soto lost a 2010 bid for clerk of the Laramie County District Court and the next year became president of the Laramie County Democratic Grass Roots Coalition.
According to depositions, Soto overheard Cuprill and Artery talk about the story on the Pinedale judge, approached Cuprill, and asked, “Do you know what I do for a living?” Soto handed the top Democrat official a business card and suggested she could file a complaint with her agency.
Soto asked Cuprill to email Donovan’s story to her. On Dec. 22, Cuprill did so. Later that day, Soto selected an investigatory panel of the Commission on Judicial Conduct and Ethics to review it. Cuprill did not file a complaint.
In addition to being a municipal judge, Neely had served as a part-time magistrate for Sublette County Circuit Court since 2001.
The day after Neely spoke with the reporter, Sublette County’s second same-sex marriage was solemnized by Stephen Smith, another part-time circuit magistrate and former Pinedale mayor.
Smith is also the husband of Cuprill, who would become the top official of the state Democratic Party the following year.
No other same-sex marriage has occurred in the county since, according to court papers.
Cuprill has not responded to The Daily Signal’s request for comment. Donovan said he knows Cuprill through his involvement with the library but did not speak with her about his story on Neely. Donovan, who said he doesn’t know Soto, also tweeted this last month about the case:
I've been reading all the court documents, and there's some funny bits. One bit claims I'm "less than impartial" pic.twitter.com/9V9F47TnWY
— Ned Donovan (@Ned_Donovan) May 4, 2016
On Jan. 6, 2015, the investigatory panel decided to begin a confidential probe. Nine days later, Haws, who had appointed Neely, discussed the inquiry with her and said he had decided to suspend her as a part-time magistrate while it continued.
Donovan later wrote two commentaries criticizing Neely for her religious beliefs about marriage. In the first, the reporter wrote that the judge’s faith-based position “cannot be accepted.” In the second, he wrote: “It is sad that Judge Ruth Neely is still in an office of responsibility.”
Donovan, who was born in London and has dual British-American citizenship, told The Daily Signal he took the reporting job in Wyoming to get experience at a local newspaper. He left Pinedale the month after the commission began its probe of Neely and returned to London, where he is a reporter for the Mail on Sunday.
Donovan, now 22, stayed in touch with some Pinedale residents as well as the Examiner’s new editor, Stephen Crane.
In an affidavit, Crane said Donovan had urged him to continue to publish articles about Neely and wanted “to see [Neely] sacked.”
In a Feb. 7 letter to the commission, Neely specified that her “inability to solemnize same-sex unions does not arise from any prejudice or bias against people, but rather from sincerely held religious beliefs about marriage.”
During a teleconference Feb. 18, a member of the investigatory panel said she was reluctant to allow Neely to resign “as a settlement” after the judge’s views had been published in the newspaper.
The panel decided to appoint an adjudicatory committee and hire a lawyer to begin formal proceedings against her.
Early on, a commission lawyer told Neely that the agency would not pursue the case if she would agree to resign both judgeships, never again seek judicial office in Wyoming, admit wrongdoing, and allow the commission to state publicly that she had decided to resign in response to a charge of judicial misconduct.
@Ned_Donovan Quote actually reference to the Nazis systematic removal of the religious rights and free speech of Germany’s Christians.
— Wyoming Pastors (@WYPastorsNet) May 7, 2016
On Dec. 31, 2015, the adjudicatory panel concluded Neely violated the judicial rules, rejected her constitutional defenses, and referred the case to the full commission.
Six weeks later, the commission asked Neely if she would “publicly apologize” and “agree to perform same-sex marriages.”
The judge reiterated that she could not agree to do so because it would violate her religious convictions.
Seven days later, on Feb. 26, the commission formally adopted the adjudicatory panel’s findings and recommended that the Wyoming Supreme Court remove Neely from both judgeships.
It is this decision that Neely has appealed to the five-justice court. The commission’s response is due June 16.
“Because Judge Neely’s ability to perform marriages was entirely optional, nobody was going to be denied any civil marriage, which means the only victims here are an honorable judge, freedom of conscience, and tolerance for dissent,” Roger Severino, director of the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation, told The Daily Signal.
In another tweet last month, Donovan referred to “fan mail from right-wing Christians”:
Meanwhile in Wyoming, I'm getting fanmail from angry right-wing Christians pic.twitter.com/I5McCmKRhR
— Ned Donovan (@Ned_Donovan) May 13, 2016
Neely’s lawyers declined to comment on the case to The Daily Signal, pointing a reporter to court documents.
Donovan told The Daily Signal that the first he heard of any action against Neely was last summer, when Cuprill, the state’s Democratic Party leader, told him to expect a call from a lawyer.
The commission canceled a scheduled interview with him, Donovan said, and he became aware of its recommendations only when the case went public earlier this year. In the days that followed, he saw himself vilified in various blogs.
“I’m still quite shocked that something I wrote two years ago is coming back in this way and everyone’s talking about it but me,” Donovan said. “I find it quite funny.”
“I’m surprised today at the storm that it has become.”