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The Utah Attorney General's Office on Friday argued in favor of a move by the Supreme Court that could sideline a federal judge's ruling that the state acted illegally when it took over a polygamous sect's land trust.
But lawyers for the sect, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, say U.S. District Judge Dee Benson was correct in ruling that the state takeover violated the U.S. Constitution.
Now the Utah Supreme Court will weigh whether its decision last year that the FLDS waited too long to challenge the takeover prevents another court from considering the case. If it does, then Benson's right to rule could be called into question.
But Benson doesn't seem likely to allow his decision to be neutralized easily. In a hearing last week, he rebuked lawyers for the state, saying he was "completely independent" of the Utah Supreme Court.
The state took over the FLDS communal property trust in 2005 amid allegations of mismanagement. Sect members did nothing as a state judge reformed the trust to remove religion and appointed an accountant to run it. Members protested the takeover in 2008, arguing that the state had violated the separation between church and state.
When the sect's legal challenge came before the Utah Supreme Court last year, however, the justices decided the FLDS had waited too long and dismissed it. The state court ruled only on the timeframe, not on the merits of the FLDS's constitutional complaint.
FLDS lawyers renewed a challenge in federal court. Despite the Supreme Court action, Benson decided he could rule on the case. Benson based his decision on what other states have done.
But after he ruled, the Supreme Court stepped forward to say it would like to have its say. Two weeks ago, the court asked for briefs on that issue, and on how the federal decision might affect two other trust cases still before the court.
For the Attorney General's Office, "there is no question that the [Supreme Court] judgment is final," its brief states. A separate appeal in which the FLDS ask for a greater legal voice in the trust, should be dismissed, the state attorneys wrote.
But attorneys for the sect argued that the Supreme Court should let Benson's decision stand.
"The federal court's independent weighing of the merits was not precluded by [the Supreme Court's] decision," the brief states.
Meanwhile, attorneys for the accountant appointed to run the trust argues in another brief that the Supreme Court's decision was final.
The state judge "had to make hard calls in the heat of battle," the brief states, to prevent FLDS leader Warren Jeffs from using control over the property to facilitate "crimes against children." Jeffs is now in Texas awaiting trial on charges related to underage marriages.
The Utah Supreme Court will weigh whether its ruling in the state takeover of a polygamous sect's land trust was final.
Its decision could sideline a federal ruling that the state acted illegally when it took over the trust.