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Utah Supreme Court justices closely questioned why they should immediately halt a judge's order requiring the Utah Attorney General to pay more than $5.5 million in debts associated with running a polygamous sect's property trust.

"What's the reason we ought to deal with the problem here rather than dealing with it on the appeal?" said Justice Christine Durham during oral arguments in the case Monday.

Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff filed a petition for extraordinary writ asking the Supreme Court to block a February ruling ordering it to pay off four years of debts owed primarily to attorneys for Bruce Wisan, the accountant appointed to run the trust once controlled by Warren Jeffs.

"We can't play a shell game of moving, for example,$5 million from [the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force] without asking the Legislature for advance approval. We don't have an area in the budget that would accommodate a payment," within the order's 90-day deadline, said Utah Solicitor General Bridget Romano. The office's total budget is about $42 million, Shurtleff said.

Romano and Shurtleff say the order is illegal because it amounts to 3rd District Judge Denise Lindberg forcing them to ask the Legislature for more money — a violation of the Constitutional separation of powers.

The writ "looks at very narrow aspects of the order, and doesn't challenge the underlying ruling," said Durham. "I'm not sure that it's a defense when you're ordered to pay money that you don't have it."

Justices also questioned whether a legislative request was necessarily Lindberg's intent. Lindberg has since changed the order, pushing back the deadline to Aug. 1, which allowed Shurtleff more time to appeal.

That appeal on the fast track and hash out the constitutional issues there, Justice Thomas Lee suggested.

"I'm fine with that. We just need to get the thing heard," Shurtleff said after the arguments, and decide whether "it's appropriate for taxpayers to take that risk."

Even as the appeal proceeds, his office is also negotiating to help pay off the debt.

Romano likened an approximately $275,000 payment to "a finger in the dike so they're not going to flood, but to pay an immediate $5 million …. that's where the constitutional question comes up in this case."

Shurtleff helped instigate the state takeover of the United Effort plan trust in 2005 amid allegations of mismanagement by Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints trustees, including Jeffs. Wisan was to have been paid from trust assets, but has been blocked from selling property since 2008, when the sect began fighting the takeover in court. Wisan, his contractors and attorneys haven't been fully paid since then.

The debt payment from taxpayer funds would be repaid from trust assets eventually — but only if a federal appeals court rules to keep the trust in state hands. Another set of Utah Supreme Court arguments related to the federal case is planned for June.

Twitter: @lwhitehurst

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