Lawyer Discipline

Utah bar investigation into polygamy could raise other legal challenges

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Utah Bar seal.

The Utah State Bar is investigating complaints that seven lawyers are violating rules of conduct by being involved in polygamous relationships, a felony punishable by five to 15 years in prison.

The lawyers under investigation include Paul Kingston, leader of the Davis County Cooperative Society, also known as the Kingston Group, according to the Salt Lake Tribune. The publication received the state bar acknowledgement letters from complainant Melissa Ellis, who is a former member of the Kingston Group.

Opponents of the practice have criticized Utah’s leniency toward polygamists who hold public office and professional licenses, but legal experts told the Salt Lake Tribune the bar complaints are unlikely to meet the definitions of misconduct.

Under the Utah State Bar rule cited in the complaint, misconduct occurs when attorneys “commit a criminal act that reflects adversely on the lawyer’s honesty, trustworthiness or fitness,” the publication says. Another section of the rule defines misconduct as “involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation.”

Linda Smith, a University of Utah professor who sits on the Ethics Advisory Opinion Committee at the Utah State Bar, said comments published with state bar rules have shown that some crimes are not offenses that would reflect on a lawyer’s fitness to practice.

Legal experts also said the investigation could give polygamists what they need to challenge Utah’s bigamy statute.

“These lawyers should challenge the effort and underlying law,” Jonathan Turley, a Washington, D.C., attorney who represented the Brown family from the reality television show “Sister Wives,” told the Salt Lake Tribune. “They enjoy the same constitutional protections as their clients. An effort to disbar them based on their lifestyle would raise serious constitutional questions.”

Kody Brown and his four wives sued Utah in 2011, after police investigated whether they were breaking the portion of Utah’s bigamy statute applying to polygamists.

A federal judge in Salt Lake City found that portion of the bigamy statute unconstitutional, but the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at Denver said the Brown family couldn’t show they were harmed and lacked standing to sue.

See also:

ABA Journal: “Law firm accused of enabling polygamist leader Warren Jeffs can be sued, 10th Circuit says”

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