The issue of exactly when the U.S. Department of Justice learned of an alleged pattern of housing discrimination against non-members of Warren Jeffs' polygamous sect is the focal point of the latest development in a civil rights lawsuit aimed at polygamous towns on the Arizona-Utah border.
Attorneys for both sides argued the point during a federal court hearing Wednesday to address a motion from the towns to dismiss the government's request to seek monetary damages and civil penalties.
In backing that claim, Blake Hamilton, the attorney representing the towns of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah., said the government must have known of at least three incidents of housing discrimination that occurred in the mid-2000s. He said that means monetary damages and civil penalties are barred because of the three-year statute of limitations in the case, which was filed a year ago.
U.S. Department of Justice attorney Jessica Crockett countered that the government couldn't have known about the pattern of housing discrimination against non-members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints until April 2010. That's when the Arizona Attorney General's office notified them of their completed investigation, Crockett said.
Hamilton said the cases he is referencing came to light through newspaper articles, which drew a rebuke from Crockett. She said it's unrealistic for a federal agency to be monitoring newspapers, state and municipal courts around the country.
"It is simply unreasonable that the United States could have been aware of reports of housing discrimination based on these articles," Crockett said.
The Department of Justice sued the towns in June 2012, alleging that the towns supported a campaign of intimidation against former members of the FLDS and denied them services. Most of the residents in the towns are members of a polygamous sect run by imprisoned leader Warren Jeffs.
One claim that the towns denied access to the park and zoo to non-FLDS members has already been dismissed.
Jeffs is serving a life sentence in Texas for sexually assaulting two underage girls he considered his brides. He continues to try to lead the sect of about 10,000 people from behind bars. The sect is a radical offshoot of mainstream Mormonism whose members believe polygamy brings exaltation in heaven.
U.S. District Court Judge H. Russel Holland mainly listened during the 30-minute hearing, asking only a few questions. At one point, he asked Hamilton if his argument mattered, considering that the government has demonstrated a pattern of discrimination that continued for years.
Hamilton said the government has not yet proven that, pointing out the details remain hazy about when the discrimination occurred against 13 of the 16 victims in the suit.
Crockett countered that point during her argument saying about the discrimination, "We have no reason to believe it is not continuing today."
Judge Holland promised to make a ruling soon.
While the civil rights lawsuit plays out in federal court, Utah state officials are moving forward with a plan to appoint a board of trustees to oversee the redistribution of homes, land and farm in the two small communities. The properties have been held up in a court for eight years after Utah took over a church trust that controls the properties amid allegations of mismanagement by Jeffs and other church leaders.