Constitutional Law

10th Circuit reverses bigamy-law win for 'Sister Wives' family

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After a Utah family and their plural marriages became the subject of a TLC reality television show in 2010, local authorities in Lehi opened an investigation to see whether the Sister Wives family should be prosecuted for violating the state’s bigamy law.

Kody Brown and his four wives (one legal, three “spiritual”) then filed a federal civil rights suit under 42 U.S.C. §1983. It sought a declaratory judgment that the law violated their constitutional rights under the First and 14th amendments and asked the court to issue an order blocking the prosecution.

Although the Utah County attorney’s office (UCAO) subsequently closed its file on the Browns and adopted a policy under which a collateral crime essentially would be required to proceed in a bigamy case, the district court granted a summary judgment in the family’s favor. But that was a mistake, a federal appeals court said in a Monday opinion (PDF).

“We do not address the merits of the Browns’ claims. The district court should not have done so, either,” wrote the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, explaining that the change of policy rendered the Browns’ case moot.

“The district court erred by proceeding to the merits,” the appellate panel said. “Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction. They lack power to decide issues—however important or fiercely contested—that are detached from a live dispute between the parties. Following adoption of the UCAO policy, the Browns’ suit ceased to qualify as an Article III case or controversy. Their suit was moot before the district court awarded them relief, and the court therefore lacked jurisdiction to decide the Browns’ claims.”

However, the Browns and a number of observers are dubious that they can now expect not to be pursued under the bigamy law, reports the Washington Post (reg. req.).

Attorney Jonathan Turley, who represents the family, said he expects to appeal the Monday decision, either by seeking en banc review by the full 10th Circuit or by asking the nation’s top court to weigh in.

“The underlying rights of religious freedom and free speech are certainly too great to abandon after prevailing below in this case,” he wrote in the Jonathan Turley blog. “Equally important is the right for plural families to be heard in federal court, a right sharply curtailed by this decision. Utah is a state that was founded by courageous citizens seeking these very protections from government abuse and religious inequality. This lawsuit is true to the original dream of those seeking freedom in Utah.”

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