Appeals court mulls polygamous church trust case

AP News
Posted: Apr 14, 2011 8:48 PM
Appeals court mulls polygamous church trust case

The battle for control of a Utah polygamous church's land trust is in the hands of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.

Appeals court clerk Elisabeth Shumaker said Thursday two judges are considering an emergency motion filed on behalf of Utah's 3rd District Judge Denise Lindberg.

Lindberg wants the 10th Circuit to block an April 8 preliminary injunction from U.S. District Judge Dee Benson that orders the trust returned to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and its jailed leader, Warren Jeffs.

In the motion filed Wednesday, Lindberg claims Benson has created "an immediate crisis" that will cause "irreparable harm" and unravel six years of decisions by the Utah courts. She claims the federal court shouldn't interfere.

"By virtue of the orders issued by the district court, control of the state case will be inappropriately wrested from Judge Lindberg unless (the appeals court) takes immediate action," wrote Brent M. Johnson, an attorney working on Lindberg's behalf.

The motion also claims Benson's actions might undermine public confidence in the federal court because his ruling places the federal system "in direct conflict with the state courts."

Attorneys for the FLDS opposed Lindberg's motion late Thursday.

"The `emergency' cited by Judge Lindberg is entirely of her own making," and her actions run afoul of federal court rules, attorney Rod Parker wrote.

Parker contends that Benson's order is crafted narrowly and protects the interests of all trust beneficiaries. The order prohibits the liquidation of assets or other significant changes while the trust remains entangled in lawsuits.

It's not clear when the appeals court would rule.

The Utah courts seized control of the $114 million trust in 2005 amid allegations of mismanagement by Jeffs and other church leaders. The trust holds the land and homes of some 10,000 church members in Hildale, Utah, Colorado City, Ariz., and Bountiful, British Columbia.

Under state control, the trust was stripped of its religious tenets. Its seizure is being challenged by the FLDS through lawsuits in both state and federal courts.

In February, Benson ruled in the church's favor, saying Utah's takeover of the trust was a violation of the faith's religious rights.

The decision has been appealed to the 10th Circuit by the attorneys general of Utah and Arizona, Lindberg and Bruce Wisan, the accountant who has managed the trust for the state since 2005.

Benson's injunction suspended Wisan's authority and ordered that he turn over trust records to the church.

Lindberg fired back with a competing order on Monday, directing Wisan to ignore Benson's injunction.

Additional papers filed with the appeals court late Thursday suggest the tension between the two courts may be coming to a head.

According to Lindberg's attorney, Benson threatened to "have the federal marshals bring Judge Lindberg before his court ... to answer for her order." The threat was allegedly made as Benson discussed the scheduling of a hearing with Lindberg's attorney.

Benson was expected to schedule a hearing to discuss Lindberg's competing order on Monday.