A simmering feud between state and federal courts boiled over last week in Utah when U.S. District Judge Dee Benson threatened to arrest Utah District Judge Denise Lindberg and have her hauled into his courtroom.
Only a last-minute intervention by the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals stalled the shodown that might well have sparked a constitutional crisis.
The drama came complete with allegations of religious discrimination and judicial cronyism that seemed more like a made-for-television movie than a disagreement over legal principle.
Lindberg is the judge who in 2005 removed FLDS prophet Warren Jeffs and several of his lieutenants from control of the United Effort Plan Trust (UEP) and appointed Bruce Wisan, a Salt Lake City accountant, to serve as Special Fiduciary and administer the trust.
In her initial ruling, she found that Jeffs and others had failed to protect the assets of the trust when they refused to answer lawsuits brought against the trust and the FLDS Church by former church members.
Since that time, Wisan has managed the trust which owns much of the property in the twin towns of Hildale, Utah and Colorado City, Arizona, collectively known as Short Creek, longtime headquarters of the FLDS Church. But, Wisan’s administration was complicated by the unwillingness of Jeffs loyalists residing there to cooperate with him, pay property taxes, or even acknowledge the names of individuals living in UEP owned homes.
Two weeks ago, Judge Benson ruled that Judge Lindberg’s action was unconstitutional and called it a “virtual takeover” of church property. He then ordered Wisan to return all assets of the trust back to the leadership of the FLDS Church.
For his part, Wisan said he was unclear who is actually in control of the church and noted that FLDS prophet had, on more than one occasion, disavowed his position as church president and named another man, William Edson Jessop, as church leader. Wisan’s argument was bolstered by the fact that on March 28, 2011, Jessop filed documents with the Utah Department of Commerce asserting his claim to the presidency of the church. Jessop’s claim was disputed three days later in counter-filings by one of Jeffs’ followers, Boyd L. Knudson.
In direct opposition to Benson’s ruling, Judge Lindberg ordered Wisan to maintain control over the UEP and its assets.
The Utah Supreme Court then took up the matter and asked pointed questions of attorney Rod Parker, who is prohibited from representing the FLDS church because he once represented the UEP Trust. Despite a lengthy hearing, the Supreme Court took no action on case.
And, as the showdown escalated, Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne appealed Benson’s ruling to the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.
Benson then ordered Lindberg to appear in his court on Friday, April 15th to “show cause” for disobeying his order. When Lindberg replied that she would be in Arizona that day attending her uncle’s funeral, Benson threatened to have her arrested by U.S. Marshals and brought before his bench.
With that, Lindberg then sought an emergency stay from the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, calling it a “crisis necessitating an immediate decision” from the court.
Lindberg’s request was almost immediately granted by the circuit court which ordered Benson to “stay his order” until the entire matter could be examined by the circuit court. All parties were invited to file briefs on or before Friday, April 22, 2011.
The matter is still in flux with both sides pointing fingers. FLDS faithful continue to claim religious persecution while those in opposition note that Judge Benson was a one-time partner of former FLDS attorney Rod Parker in the Salt Lake City law firm of Snow Christensen & Martineau. Benson is listed on the law firm’s website as a distinguished alumni of the firm.
It is unknown when the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals will issue a ruling in the case.