SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A judge threw out a lawsuit Wednesday against polygamous leader Warren Jeffs that claimed the sect's longtime Utah law firm created a veneer that helped perpetuate abuses such as child labor and underage marriage.
U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart decided that lawyers who represented leaders of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints were not responsible for alleged misdeeds by the secretive group based on the Utah-Arizona border.
He also said many of the claims were too old to be decided in court, ruling that the sect's representation by law firm Snow, Christensen and Martineau was common knowledge, even for members who said they were forbidden from contact with the outside world.
A lawyer for more than 20 former members of the group, Brett Godfrey, said he's looking over the order and weighing an appeal.
The former members claimed that the well-known Salt Lake City law firm burnished the sect's credentials as a maligned religious group as cover for crimes such as Jeffs' increasing use of underage marriage.
Ex-members said attorneys paid with money earned from child labor had helped Jeffs devise legal strategies for tightening his control over the group after he took over leadership from his father in the late 1990s.
Jeffs used that power to marry and sexually assault underage girls as well as arrange other underage marriages, the lawsuit said. He now is serving a life sentence in Texas after being convicted of sexually assaulting girls he considered wives.
The law firm has denied the allegations as "utterly nonsensical," saying lawyers were simply doing their jobs and can't be held responsible for anything Jeffs did.
It strongly denied involvement with anything illegal and condemned the wrongdoing that the plaintiffs say they suffered under Jeffs, including being forced into marriage and separated from their families.
Snow, Christensen and Martineau no longer represents Jeffs or the polygamous group, but Wednesday's ruling shows their dealings were always ethical, said the firm's lawyer, Brent Hatch.
Jeffs no longer has a lawyer, and the group does not have a phone number to contact for comment.
The lawsuit came as the federal government waged fights on multiple fronts to rein in the group with court cases in both Utah and Arizona.
Jurors in Phoenix have found that the polygamous community violated the rights of nonbelievers by denying them basic services such as police protection, and a judge in Utah found that children in the group were forced to work long hours, sometimes with little food, at a pecan farm in 2012.
Several members of the group also have agreed to plea deals in a multimillion-dollar food-stamp fraud scheme. Lyle Jeffs, a leader of the group and Warren Jeffs' brother, is on the run after escaping home confinement ordered in that case.