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SALT LAKE CITY — A federal appeals court handed a big victory to the state of Utah Monday and delivered a big blow to imprisoned polygamist leader Warren Jeffs — and there may be a silver lining for Utah taxpayers.
The ruling breaks a legal logjam surrounding $100 million worth of property Warren Jeffs, former leader of The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, once controlled.
In overturning U.S. District Judge Dee Benson's ruling, the three-judge panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in effect said FLDS leaders waited too long to assert their religious rights.
It all began in 2005, when the state of Utah seized the trust Warren Jeffs controlled: $110 million worth of land and houses in Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz.
At first Jeffs didn't fight the seizure. But after Texas Rangers raided the FLDS ranch in Eldorado, Texas, church leaders started fighting for the trust in Utah.
Jeffrey Shields is a lawyer for the court-appointed fiduciary who now runs the trust. He has a theory about why the FLDS changed directions and started fighting.
"I think the plan was to vacate Hildale and Colorado City and move the elite to Texas," Shields said. "They didn't care what happened to the trust. But when they lost their plan in Texas, they decided, ‘Well, we'd better care.' And they came back and started to fight."
Judge Benson ruled that the state seizure trampled on FLDS religious rights. But the appeals court ruled the state courts had already decided the issue.
"Once you've had your bite at the apple, you don't get another one," explained Peggy Stone, assistant Utah attorney general.
Stone said the Denver court ruling did not directly address religious freedom, but it upheld the answer FLDS leaders got from the state court. "It's that, ‘You've sat on your rights too long,' she explained.
"It's a long-standing doctrine that if you sit on your rights too long, you could lose your rights," Shields said.
Now the state fiduciary is free to sell vacant FLDS land — a potential solution to his battle with the state for $5.6 million in unpaid bills from his own lawyers and other professionals.
"He'll be able to sell property and generate money for the trust; and so then he can be paid from the trust corpus, which is how it's supposed to be," Stone said.
"Now that we have that ruling, it should break the logjam incredibly," Shields said. The question is, who has to hold the bag in the interim?
Shields' question as follows: the lawyers want to be paid now; they want Utah's governor to call a special session of the Legislature to pay the bills.
Regardless of whether that happens, at least this court ruling now provides a mechanism to generate revenue and pay state taxpayers back.