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A federal court judge on Tuesday bristled at the notion his ruling in a long-running dispute over control of a polygamous sect's property trust should be delayed by a potential Utah Supreme Court ruling.
Attorneys representing the Utah Attorney General's Office asked U.S. District Court Judge Dee Benson to stay the preliminary injunction he issued late last month preventing a state sale of the trust's 700-acre Berry Knoll Farm land considered sacred by The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
Benson declined, lambasting attorneys for being unconcerned with his decision that the state has violated the sect's constitutional rights. The state in 2005 took over the trust amid allegations of mismanagement, then a judge reformed it to remove religion and appointed an accountant to run it.
"The government is where it shouldn't be," said Benson in court. "It shouldn't be violating everyday the free exercise rights of these people. You're violating the constitution everyday. So why should I care about what the Utah Supreme Court is doing?"
The justices last year dismissed an FLDS appeal under the legal doctrine of laches, saying the sect had waited so long to intervene in the case it had prejudiced their opponents. Members of the sect did not protest the state takeover until 2008.
But following Benson's ruling, the justices asked attorneys to file briefs for a ruling that could determine whether Benson can rule in the case. Assistant Attorney General Joni Jones argued if the Supreme Court rules laches is binding on all courts, Benson may not have jurisdiction to hear the case.
"Let's wait to hear what they say," said Jones. "Because if they say in Utah, we would honor a laches decision in other courts, this lawsuit has to be dismissed. Everybody knows that."
Briefs are due to the justices by March 25 and Jones said she anticipates a ruling within 30 days.
But Benson said any future Supreme Court decision shouldn't prevent the case from moving forward in federal court.
"I'm completely independent of the Utah Supreme Court. What I've done is carefully study this case and found there is a constitutional violation," Benson said.
"I can't seem to make that clear. Please don't tell me a court in England is considering something," he told Jones sarcastically. "If I find out that Utah law is different than I thought it was, then I'll do something about it."
Tuesday's hearing had been designed to allow attorneys input into what they believe a final injunction should entail before the focus shifted. Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff has said his office plans to appeal Benson's decision.
Attorney Rod Parker, who represents the FLDS, said Tuesday that he spoke with Shurtleff's office on Monday about a possible settlement and called the conversation "productive." On Tuesday, Benson encouraged the two sides try to reach an overall settlement.
"It's like Iraq," Benson told Jones. "You've got to figure out a good strategy to get out."
P U.S. District Court Judge Dee Benson gave attorneys 20 days to discuss the components of a final injunction. Attorneys will reconvene before Benson on April 5.