The Oregon Supreme Court upheld six of eight ethics violations against a county judge earlier this month, including one count of discrimination for trying to avoid officiating same-sex weddings. Other serious transgressions, unrelated to the marriage issue, warranted a three-year suspension without pay, its most severe suspension to date, the court said.
Numerous media outlets implied or declared that the court suspended Marion County Judge Vance Day for refusing to marry same-sex couples. But a review of the 91-page ruling reveals the court concluded Day’s actions outside his courtroom and during the investigation of those incidents by the Oregon Commission on Judicial Fitness and Disability earned him the lengthy penalty.
One of the commission’s two most serious allegations involves Day’s 2016 criminal indictments on two felony gun charges and two first-degree counts of official misconduct. The commission’s investigation into those accusations and others, including the discrimination complaint, resulted in eight counts of misconduct and a recommendation that Day be removed from office. On appeal, the Oregon Supreme Court dismissed two of the counts but found two others that called for his suspension.
Day’s criminal trial begins April 17 in Salem, Ore.
The court did not address Day’s religious liberty defense related to solemnizing same-sex marriages, saying the seriousness of the other charges precluded the need to consider his constitutional arguments.
Kim Colby, director of the Christian Legal Society, considered that a positive aspect of the decision. By not ruling on Day’s free exercise claims, Colby told me, “the court left open the important possibility that federal law might well protect a judge from being disciplined for his or her religious beliefs regarding participation in a same-sex wedding ceremony.”
When a federal judge ruled in 2014 that Oregon gay and lesbian people could marry, Day asked his staff to “discreetly” screen applicants and tell same-sex couples he had a scheduling conflict. Only once did his staff discover a same-sex marriage application, and Day actually had a legitimate scheduling conflict. Several weeks later, Day stopped officiating all marriages, according to court documents. —B.P.