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Some three months after polygamous sect leader Warren Jeffs was convicted of sexually assaulting two girls he took as plural wives, attorneys have filed their opening arguments with a federal appeals court in the group's long-running communal property trust case.
The briefings come after a federal judge in February handed the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints its first major legal victory since the state of Utah took over the sect's approximately $110 million communal property trust in 2005 amid allegations of mismanagement by FLDS trustees.
In August, Jeffs, 55, was convicted in Texas of sexually assaulting two underage girls, ages 12 and 15, he took as plural wives and sentenced to life in prison. It remains to be seen whether the sometimes-graphic evidence that came to light in that trial will come up in the trust case.
"I think it shouldn't affect it," said FLDS attorney Rod Parker, who filed the sect's opening brief this week. "The question in the case is, when is it appropriate for the state to take over a religious institution? Our position is, the ends don't justify the means. There are some things the state just can't do, even if it feels it has good reason ... once you crack that door open ... how do you get it closed?"
Attorneys for the accountant appointed to run the trust for the state have previously said that a return of the trust to the FLDS would hurt people who live on trust property but aren't members of the sect.
Earlier this year, U.S. District Judge Dee Benson sided with the FLDS. The approximately 10,000 members of the FLDS still live on and use houses and land owned by the trust, which holds almost all the property in the sect's home base in the twin border towns of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah.
The state of Utah appealed to the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, arguing that Benson overreached when he attempted to temporarily hand back control of the trust to the sect and he should not have been ruling on the case anyway because the Utah Supreme Court had already dismissed it the year before.
But that dismissal is something of a legal gray area. Based on a rarely invoked legal principle, the justices did not rule on whether the FLDS was right or wrong, but rather that they had waited too long three years to mount their challenge. There isn't any case law in Utah on whether that kind of decision bars another judge from ruling.
"This question has never come up," said Assistant Utah Attorney General Joni Jones. "It's a pretty rare question all over the country, in fact."
The 10th Circuit will look at that issue and weigh whether to send the question back to the Utah Supreme Court for clarification, according to an order issued Friday.
That decision, however, might not come until after oral arguments in the case, which both sides requested in their initial briefs. Parker said he doesn't expect arguments to happen until next spring.
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United Effort Plan trust
R The long-running property trust case is now before the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, where attorneys for the state of Utah, which took over the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints trust five years ago, and the polygamous sect's attorneys have now filed opening briefs.