A judge in New York state reinstated criminal charges against New Paltz Mayor Jason West for solemnizing same-sex “marriages.”
Mayor Jason West (Photo: Times Herald-Record, Middletown, N.Y.)
Shortly after San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom defied California law to become the first official in the country to authorize marriage licenses for same-sex couples, West presided over about two dozen ceremonies in the small New York town last February.
West, 27, was assessed 24 misdemeanor counts, but a town court judge dropped the charges, citing constitutional problems in banning same-sex marriages.
On Wednesday, however, Ulster County Court Judge J. Michael Bruhn restored the charges, declaring the case is simply about West fulfilling his oath of office to uphold the law.
In New York, it is a criminal misdemeanor for any person to solemnize a marriage “without a license being presented to him,” and violations are punishable with a fine of not less than $50 or by imprisonment up to a year.
Without a settlement or appeal by West’s lawyers, the case will go to trial.
Mathew D. Staver, president and general counsel of the Florida-based public-interest legal group Liberty Counsel, said Bruhn’s opinion echoes two separate decisions of Ulster County Judge E. Michael Kavanagh, who granted permanent injunctions against West and other village officials that prohibited them from solemnizing marriages between same-sex couples.
Judge Kavanagh’s decision stated, “The impact of [West's] position, that an elected official may willfully violate a law anytime he or she believes it is unconstitutional, has profound and unsettling implications. This view, if accepted, would mean that the mayor is a law unto himself and would in certain circumstances have power that is simply incompatible with a democratic form of government based on the rule of law.”
Bruhn’s opinion this week came as a result of lawsuits filed by Liberty Counsel on behalf of Robert Hebel, a member of the New Paltz Board of Trustees.
Staver said he is “pleased that the rule of law has returned to New Paltz.”
“Attempts to disregard the clear law of the land by elected officials should be viewed for what it is – illegal activity,” he said. “If you break the law, you must be brought to justice.”
West’s attorney, Joshua Rosenkranz, told the Associated Press no decision had been made yet on whether to appeal, but added that “I know that Jason West is chomping at the bit to face a jury of his peers.”
West insists that if he rejected a homosexual couple wishing to marry, he would be violating the state constitution and thus his oath of office.
But New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and Gov. George Pataki have said same-sex ceremonies violate state law.
After solemnizing the unions Feb. 27, West created an “Affidavit of Marriage” and a “Contract of Marriage” that he posted on the town’s website. He said he was issuing these documents “in lieu of a Certificate of Marriage” because the town clerk refused to issue a license.
West, a member of the Green Party, said at the time he thought it was “funny” that he had provoked a fight, concluding, “This is the best day of my mayoral career.”