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Sunday, May 19, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Control of Polygamists’ Land Belongs to Utah

(CN) - A polygamist sect cannot regain control of a $110 million trust, the 10th Circuit ruled, finding that the property should remain under the control of Utah.

Utah took over the trust, formally know as the United Effort Plan, in 2005 amid underage rape charges against the sect's now incarcerated leader, Warren Jeffs.

Members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints began fighting for the trust - which includes more than 700 houses, farms, dairies and other businesses in Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz. - in 2008.

With the battle playing out in both federal and state jurisdictions, the Utah Supreme Court sided with the state in 2010. In Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints v. Lindberg, the court said that the sect's three-year delay to fight for control of the trust had violated the doctrine of laches.

Months later, U.S. District Judge Dee Benson found that Utah had assumed control of the trust in violation of the constitutional separation of church and state.

The 10th Circuit quickly suspended and stayed Benson's order, and certified a question to the Utah Supreme Court about whether its 2010 decision had a preclusive effect on the federal case.

After receiving an answer to that question, the Denver-based federal appeals court decided Monday that the doctrine of res judicata bars the Mormons' federal claims.

"Having now received the Utah Supreme Court's answer to our certified question, we conclude that the FLDS Association is precluded from pursuing its claims in federal court," Chief Judge Mary Beck Briscoe wrote for a three-member panel.

"In light of the Utah Supreme Court's answer, we conclude that the district court erred in granting a preliminary injunction," she added. "More specifically, we conclude that the district court erred in holding that the Utah Supreme Court's finding of laches in Lindberg was not a judgment on the merits for res judicata purposes. As the Utah Supreme Court has now made clear, Lindberg would have preclusive effect in Utah courts. In accordance with §1738, we are required to give preclusive effect to Lindberg, and we conclude that FLDS Association is precluded from pursuing its claims in federal court."

Federal prosecutors are pursuing their own case against the sect. The government sued the twin towns on the Utah-Arizona border in June, claiming that local government, police and utility companies are de facto arms of the polygamous church.

Jeffs, 56, was convicted in Utah in 2007 of two counts of first-degree felony rape for his role in the 2001 wedding of a 14-year-old girl to her 19-year-old cousin. But, the convictions were reversed on the basis of erroneous jury instructions.

More recently, Jeffs received a life sentence plus 20 years in Texas for sexually assaulting two girls he claimed were his "spiritual wives." He is said to still head the polygamous sect from prison.

Separately, in August, the Utah Supreme Court ordered state officials to pay more than $5 million for the legal debts incurred by the administrator of the trust, Bruce Wisan.

Utah's attorney general opposed the idea, but a probate court approved the payment finding the state's objections "broad-based and often vague."

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