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A civil rights group on Thursday lodged a complaint against a Utah judge who has been criticized for his complimentary remarks about a former Mormon bishop who was sent to prison for sexually abusing two women.
At a sentencing hearing earlier this month, 4th District Judge Thomas Low became emotional as he ordered a prison term for Keith Robert Vallejo, whom a jury convicted of 10 counts of forcible sexual abuse and a count of object rape.
After reading more than 50 letters of support for Vallejo, Low said he had no doubt the defendant "is an extraordinary, good man."
"But great men," he said, "sometimes do bad things."
Restore Our Humanity, a Utah civil rights group that has launched an initiative to help sexual assault victims, filed a complaint with state officials Thursday, saying the judge's comments minimize Vallejo's actions.
Restore Our Humanity Executive Director Mark Lawrence wrote in the complaint that Low's comments violated judicial rules requiring judges to be impartial and unbiased.
"To verbally praise the defendant as an 'extraordinary, good man' during the sentencing hearing is absolutely judicially inappropriate," the complaint reads, "and shows bias towards membership of [a] particular faith. One can only wonder if the hearing and sentencing results would have ended with a different tone had the defendant been Catholic, Jewish or other."
The group's complaint was filed with the Utah Judicial Conduct Commission, an 11-member body that is tasked to investigate allegations of judicial misconduct throughout the state. Their proceedings are not public, and complaints are not publicly disclosed. The Tribune received a copy of Restore Our Humanity's complaint from the group itself.
The commission can't take action itself, rather it can recommend that the Utah Supreme Court impose discipline which can range from a public reprimand to a suspension to an involuntary retirement.
Additionally, another state commission is reviewing complaints. Jennifer Yim, the executive director for the Utah Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission, said last week that it had received more than 120 emails, phone calls and Facebook messages about Low since late March when The Tribune published a story about Low's decision to allow Vallejo to remain free on bail pending sentencing even after he was found guilty. Yim said Thursday the comments, which are currently confidential, have tapered off a bit this week.
Yim said her commission can't sanction or remove a judge from office, but instead compiles performance reports for voters who will decide whether a judge should be retained. Any of the comments they receive now won't be made public until the day after a judge elects to run for retention which for Low, won't be until July 2020.
Utah Courts spokesman Geoffrey Fattah said Low is not commenting, adding that judicial rules prohibit judges from speaking to the media about the cases before them.
Julia Kirby who was 19 when Vallejo, her brother-in-law, abused her told The Tribune after the sentencing that she was shocked by the judge's comments. She said she also plans to file a judicial complaint against him.
Vallejo was accused of inappropriately touching now-23-year-old Kirby in April 2013, when she stayed at his Provo home while she attended Brigham Young University. She told police Vallejo groped her several times while she pretended to be asleep on his couch.
The second victim reported to police that Vallejo also groped and raped her while she was sleeping on a couch at the Vallejo home in 2014, when she was 17 years old.
The Tribune generally does not identify victims of sexual abuse, but Kirby agreed to be named.
At the sentencing hearing, Low ordered Vallejo to serve concurrent sentences of one-to-15 years in prison for each of the second-degree felonies, and a five-years-to-life term for the object rape charge. Kirby said she had hoped for consecutive sentences, because there were two victims.
Low said during the sentencing hearing that he agreed with the verdicts and thought the jury got it right. He also called Kirby "a survivor," and told her that she was as strong as any other victim of a sex crime he had seen in his courtroom.
Vallejo has maintained his innocence. His attorney, Edward Brass, has said that his client is considering filing an appeal.