A federal appeals court on Wednesday blocked a federal judge in Utah from handing control of a communal land trust back to leaders of Warren Jeffs' polygamous church.
The stay issued by the Denver-based 10th Circuit Court of Appeals also halted a dispute between Utah's 3rd District Court Judge Denise Lindberg and U.S. District Court Judge Dee Benson, who disagree about management of the United Effort Plan trust.
Valued at $114 million, the trust holds the land and homes of Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints members in Colorado City, Ariz.; Hildale, Utah; and Bountiful, British Columbia.
Utah courts seized control of the trust in 2005 after amid allegations of mismanagement, including that Jeffs and other church leaders had used it for their own benefit and left its holdings vulnerable to liquidation through default judgments in civil lawsuits.
The next year, a state judge allowed the trust to be stripped of its religious tenets and opened its class of beneficiaries to former church members. Some 6,000 of the church's 10,000 members then sued in federal court.
The FLDS have sued in both state and federal courts to regain control of the properties. The sect believes communal living is a religious principle and formed the trust in the 1940s so that faithful members could share its assets.
In February, Benson ruled that Utah's actions amounted to a government takeover that violated the religious rights of the church.
Appeals of the ruling have been filed by the attorneys general of Utah and Arizona and by attorneys for Bruce Wisan, the Lindberg-appointed accountant who currently manages the trust. An attorney representing Lindberg has also appealed.
The parties believe Benson has overstepped his authority and that a federal court may not have the right to overturn the decisions by a state judge.
The appeals court stay blocked Benson's injunction, which turned management of the trust back to church bishops, including Jeffs' brother, Lyle Jeffs.
The stay will likely remain in place until appeals of Benson's ruling is heard and decided by a panel of judges. No schedule has been set by the courts for the filing or written arguments, nor has a hearing date been set.
FLDS attorney Rod Parker said he wasn't surprised that the appeals court issued the stay.
Lindberg has also placed a voluntary hold on all but essential trust management activity while the federal court appeal is decided.
"As long as that's construed narrowly, probably not much will change," Parker said.
Jeffs Shields, an attorney who represents Wisan, said the stay is an appropriate response to Benson's "radical" injunction.
"We think the 10th Circuit did the prudent thing, and I think everybody's rights will be protected in the interim," Shields said.
President of the church since 2002, the 55-year-old Jeffs has spent most of the last four years behind bars. He was arrested in 2006 and convicted the next year on Utah charges of rape as an accomplice.
The conviction was later overturned, and Jeffs was extradited to Texas where he faces two trials on bigamy and sexual assault charges, which stem from alleged relationships with underage girls. A court has entered no guilty pleas on his behalf.
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