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Charges Dropped Against Mayor Who Performed Gay Weddings
By JENNIFER MEDINA
Published: July 13, 2005 - New York Times
The Ulster County district attorney dropped charges against the mayor of New Paltz, N.Y., yesterday for marrying same-sex couples, saying that a trial would be needless and divisive.
Mayor Jason West had been charged with 24 misdemeanor counts of violating the state's domestic relations law when he performed public marriage ceremonies for two dozen gay and lesbian couples in February 2004.
In a letter to the town judge withdrawing the charges, the district attorney, Donald A. Williams, said a trial would probably "be exploited by those with a greater interest in publicity than the public good."
"While a trial in this case would be filled with rhetoric and hyperbole, it would be lacking in a viable public purpose," Mr. Williams wrote.
Mayor West had been expected to stand trial in the fall, and if convicted, he could have faced fines and up to a year in prison.
The mayor's lawyer, E. Joshua Rosenkranz, said the district attorney's decision was a "total and complete vindication."
He also accused the district attorney of being more concerned with the widespread public attention the case received than with the concerns of New Paltz residents.
"We have always said that a criminal prosecution serves absolutely no purpose," Mr. Rosenkranz said. "He went searching for the limelight, but when it got too hot, he flew away like a moth with singed wings."
Mayor West said the decision not to prosecute the case showed that the district attorney had been "grandstanding for the last 18 months."
"There doesn't seem to be any reason why he would have not made the same decision a year and a half ago," Mr. West said, "except for now he didn't think he would win."
Mr. Williams wrote that because other rulings in civil cases have barred same-sex civil unions, and because the state attorney general has issued an opinion saying New York does not permit such marriages, Mr. West is already prohibited from marrying other gay couples.
Mr. Williams has repeatedly said that the case was not over constitutional rights for gay men and lesbians, as Mr. West claimed, but over a public official's duty to uphold existing law. But Mr. West said he was fighting for equal rights, and was therefore upholding his oath of office.
The charges were dismissed by a town justice in June 2004, but were reinstated by a county judge in February. The mayor appealed that decision, but the State Court of Appeals declined to hear the case.
In the spring of 2004, Mayor West became the second public official in the country, after Mayor Gavin Newsom of San Francisco, to preside over same-sex weddings. The move thrust New Paltz, a village of 6,000, into the spotlight of the debate over gay unions. Justice E. Michael Kavanagh of State Supreme Court in Kingston issued an order banning Mr. West from performing same-sex unions as long as they were not licensed in the state.
"Dropping the charges does not change any of that," Mr. Rosenkranz said, "but nothing was going to change that."