Dissidents who have sued to regain property held in trust by leaders of a polygamist community on the Utah-Arizona border are entitled to a financial accounting, a federal judge ruled Monday.
An attorney for the dissidents characterized the order by U.S. District Chief Judge Bruce Jenkins as a significant victory for his clients, but a defense attorney said it would make little difference in the 3-year-old case.The 17-page order is the latest in the legal battle between the leaders of the adjacent towns of Hildale, Washington County, and Colorado City, Ariz., and about 35 residents who contend they were wrongly evicted from their homes for dissenting from some religious tenets.
The plaintiffs, many whom still live in the twin communities of about 3,000, are seeking to dissolve the trust, contending the leaders have misappropriated money and commingled religious and municipal money.
The trust owns most of the property in both communities. The dissidents say they were promised the property eventually would become theirs in exchange for development or contributions to the community.
The communities were founded in the 1920s by a group bent on practicing polygamy, which The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints disavowed in 1890.
The sect's longtime prophet, LeRoy Johnson, died three years ago at age 98, plunging the communities into a power struggle and federal court.
Rulon Jeffs, who lives in Salt Lake County, eventually emerged as the sect's prophet and visits the communities and other small polygamist colonies scattered in the two states.
Jenkins ruled the plaintiffs can require an accounting of the trust, despite defense arguments that the proper venue is state, not federal, court.
Jenkins said that although Utah law holds that state courts exercise "exclusive jurisdiction" over matters of trust law, "this court adopts the general principle that federal courts should usually reject state legislative attempts to limit the reach of federal jurisdiction."
In a related ruling, Jenkins denied the leaders' motion to quash subpeonas for their bank account records and their request for a protective order that would keep the plaintiffs from examining the material.
The judge accepted the plaintiffs' contention that the bank accounts, both individually held and those labeled as "Church Operation Accounts," contain "information relevant, even crucial, to the subject matter of the lawsuit."
Jenkins, however, denied the plaintiffs' motion for a partial summary judgment making the transfer of their property to the trust null and void, saying the legal status of the trust - whether it is private or charitable - has not been determined.
In a separate order, Jenkins denied motions on both sides involving the use of the Hildale town hall for Sunday School classes and the issue of church-state separation.
The judge said there were unanswered questions about the uses of the hall and invited both sides to submit written responses for his consideration.
Salt Lake attorney Jeff Swinton, who represents the plaintiffs, said Jenkins' orders "are very significant rulings to give us the rights we've been trying to get for three years in the courts and for many years before."
He said the ruling would enable the discovery process to continue but that it might force a delay in a scheduled Dec. 20 pretrial hearing if all the information cannot be obtained by that time.
Defense attorney Scott Berry, however, said that while his clients would comply with the order, "We don't believe the plaintiffs' access to those accounts will make any substantial difference.
"There's no smoking gun . . . it's more of a big nuisance than a setback," Berry said.
Of some 35 motions in the plaintiffs' original complaint, about 20 remain to be resolved either by the judge or at trial, Swinton said.