FEDERAL COURT RULES STATE OFFICIALS VIOLATED THE CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS OF THE BROWN FAMILY IN THE SISTER WIVES CASE

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It is with a great pleasure this evening that I can announce the final decision of United States District Court Judge Clarke Waddoups on the last remaining count in the Sister Wives case. Previously, Judge Waddoups handed down an historic ruling striking down key portions of the Utah polygamy law as unconstitutional. Only one count remained: the Section 1983 claim that state officials (notably prosecutor Jeffrey R. Buhman) violated the constitutional rights of the Brown family in years of criminal investigation and public accusations. This was a difficult legal question that Judge Waddoups asked for additional briefing and a hearing to address. He has now ruled for the Browns in what is now a clear sweep on all counts. I want to thank my friend and local counsel (and GW Alum) Adam Alba and all of the students who have worked so hard on this case over the years. I also want to thank the Browns for their courage and commitment in this case. It has been a great honor to serve (and continue to serve) as lead counsel in this case for the Brown family. Given the prior announcement that the Attorney General would appeal the case, we are prepared to defend this and the prior ruling in Denver, Colorado before the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit.

The Brown family and counsel have spent years in both the criminal phase of this case and then our challenge to the law itself in federal court. Despite the public statements of professors and experts that we could not prevail in this case, the court has shown that it is the rule of law that governs in this country. With the earlier decision, families like the Browns can now be both plural and legal in the state of Utah.  The Court struck down the provision as violating both the free exercise clause of the first amendment as well as the due process clause.   The court specifically struck down language criminalizing cohabitation — the provision that is used to prosecute polygamists.

On December 13, 2013, the court technically granted in part Plaintiffs’ Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. No. 49) and denied Defendant’s Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. No. 55). The court left the last count in our complaint under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. This count sought to establish that state officials, and particularly Mr. Buhman, acted to deny protected constitutional rights ranging from free speech to free exercise to equal protection. The Utah Attorney General and his staff opposed the claim in the supplemental hearing and briefing. While the State claimed that we failed to make an adequate showing for Section 1983 liability, the Court found that we properly argued the count and that we are entitled to full recovery under the federal law, including attorneys fee and costs.

42 U.S.C. § 1983 (2006) states in relevant part that:

“Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress…”

On behalf of the Brown family and the legal team, I must thank Judge Waddoups who has shown incredible fairness and integrity throughout this case. His decision in this case required a singular act of courage and principle as the first court to strike down the criminalization of polygamy. In doing so, Judge Waddoups reaffirmed the independence of our courts and stood against open prejudice and hostility toward plural families.

In his first announcement after becoming Utah Attorney General, Sean Reyes pledged to appeal the earlier ruling. However, no appeal could be taken pending the final resolution of the Section 1983 count. Judge Waddoups ruled that this is indeed the final ruling in favor of the Browns:

JUDGMENT

IT IS HEREBY ORDERED, ADJUDGED, AND DECREED that Utah Code Ann. § 76-7-101 (2013) is facially unconstitutional in that the phrase “or cohabits with another person” is a violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and is without a rational basis under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment; to preserve the integrity of the Statute, as enacted by the Utah State Legislature, the Court hereby severs the phrase “or cohabits with another person” from Utah Code § 76-7-101(1); . . . it is further

ORDERED, ADJUDGED, AND DECREED that the Plaintiffs, as prevailing parties in an action for enforcement of civil rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, are entitled to an award of attorney’s fees, costs, and expenses incurred in this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1988 upon further and proper application.

SO ORDERED this 27th day of August, 2014.

The state will now have to file a notice of appeal if it still intends to appeal this matter to the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit. This is a discretionary appeal and nothing compels the state or Mr. Reyes to try to reverse the District Court of Utah. Mr. Reyes takes an oath to uphold the Constitution. This final judgment does precisely that.

It is my sincere hope that Attorney General Reyes will reconsider his position and see the wisdom in Judge Waddoups’ decision. After this decision, abuse of spouses and children will continue to be prosecuted regardless of whether they occur in monogamous or polygamous families. These protective services will only be strengthened now that many families can openly integrate into society and not fear prosecution merely because of their family structure. What remains of the statute was narrowly construed by the Court to limit future prosecutions to traditional bigamy, i.e. individuals with multiple marriage licenses. Neither the Attorney General nor the state of Utah should fight a ruling that reaffirmed freedom of religion and equal protection. Utah is a state that was founded by citizens seeking those very rights against government abuse. Utah is better place because of the courageous decision of Judge Waddoups and the commitment of the Brown family in defense of our Constitution.

This has been a long struggle, and this may not be the end of that struggle, but it is a great day not just for the Browns, but for everyone in Utah who believe in the rule of law.

Jonathan Turley

Lead Counsel

Here is the opinion: Memorandum Decision and Judgment

Kody Brown has released the following statement on behalf of the Brown family:

The entire Brown family is gratified and thankful for this final ruling from Judge Waddoups. The decision brings closure for our family and further reaffirms the right of all families to be free from government abuse. While we know that many people do not approve of plural families, it is our family and based on our religious beliefs. Just as we respect the personal and religious choices of other families, we hope that in time all of our neighbors and fellow citizens will come to respect our own choices as part of this wonderful country of different faiths and beliefs. We hope that Attorney General Reyes will see this as a victory of us all in defending the freedom of religion and other rights in our precious Constitution. We want to particularly thank our lead counsel Professor Jonathan Turley who represented us through the criminal investigation and then led the fight against this law to reach this historic decision. We also want to thank the team of lawyers and students from George Washington, including our local counsel Adam Alba. We are so honored and blessed to have been able to serve as the vehicle for this milestone ruling. Professor Turley has pledged to defend this decision on appeal and we are equally committed to fight to preserve this now final and complete victory.

57 thoughts on “FEDERAL COURT RULES STATE OFFICIALS VIOLATED THE CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS OF THE BROWN FAMILY IN THE SISTER WIVES CASE”

  1. Karen, My daughter loves the show. I never heard of it till I read about it here.

  2. Congratulations for you and the Brown family.

    As long as we only give government benefits for one spouse, it’s not any of our business how people live. I agree that I would not want government benefits supporting polygamy, but other than that, government should stay out of private lives.

    I don’t agree with their lifestyle, but I’ve seen several episodes. The Brown family seem very nice and close knit.

  3. @ Squeeky Your said: “For example, what happens if Mr. Brown dies, then the Brown sister wives hit 65 and are ready to draw social security? Do they get their husband’s social security, each and every one of them, or do they have to split it? ”

    This situation already exists in the social security system with serial wives. I suppose it could be husbands too. If the EX-wife(s) were married for more than 10 years, even though there are other current and ex wives can also collect if the marriage was of similar duration…AND the ex wives didn’t get married again.

    http://www.socialsecurity.gov/policy/docs/ssb/v67n4/67n4p1.pdf

    So theoretically, some guy who had a good income, and a nice lifespan, could be married to three or even four women over his lifetime, divorce them all and they ALL get to collect his social security benefits for the rest of their lives. Just don’t get married again. Talk about double/triple/quadruple dipping 🙂

    I have no problem with plural marriages. More than one wife at a time…More than one husband at a time. Who cares? When I was working, I would maybe appreciate a wife too. If gays can legally marry, then why can’t any one of any configuration have a legal marriage relationship? We opened that barn door some time ago.

    What I DO have an issue with is double dipping from the benefit system, be it Social Security or the Welfare/Food stamp programs. If you are a plural marriage you get only ONE dip at the trough. One marriage…one set of benefits. Don’t be double dipping into my tax pocket!

    1. Dust Bunny Queen wrote: “If gays can legally marry, then why can’t any one of any configuration have a legal marriage relationship? We opened that barn door some time ago.”

      Logically stated, which is exactly why the barn door on gay marriage needs to be shut. It is a return to barbarism. Traditional marriage based upon gender diversity is the proper foundation for civilized society.

  4. Congrats Professor. I have a feeling this isn’t the end. There are many people with short, very short, attention spans.

  5. Congratulations, Prof. Turley, on a job well done and an excellent outcome for your clients. There is nothing more rewarding as an attorney than achieving their client’s objective(s) ( in a way that cuts square corners). Especially when the position you take in the litigation is not the most popular position amongst society. Sometimes achieving your client’s objective requires you to litigate to a final judicial resolution of the case, unfortunately.

    Having to litigate a case to its conclusion is rare. Litigating as case to its conclusion and winning all issues which could have gone either way is even more rare, and worthy of a curtain call. Especially litigating against the government. I understand from personal experience all too well the unique aspects of litigating against the government.

    So take a bow, have a cold beer, get a good night’s rest, and take another bow tomorrow. Hopefully they will have second thoughts about an appeal.

  6. Congratulations and keep fighting the good fight Professor Turley! It’s legal freedom fighters like you who work tirelessly against the continual overreach at all levels of government to keep our country running a little bit closer to the dream and vision of the Founding Fathers.

  7. Congratulations on the win.

    Squeeky, I don’t see the difficulty. There is only one marriage license, or none. Most of the what-if aspects of the relationships can be worked out by contracts. If there is a marriage license, there is only one, there can be only one divorce, one SS check, etc. It allows consenting adults to determine their own relationships. Someone other than the traditionally married couple “divorces” by leaving the relationship. For child custody and child support there are still biological parents and standing law to help determine what’s in the best interest of the child. It’s kind of like two people just living together, only it’s more than two and they have formalized their relationship without marriage.

  8. Nice job. This dog is going to pull up the opinion off the tab here and also get the briefs off of Pacer. We dogs can give some guidance in the notion of seven wives. To me six is enough. itchinBay dog here at the marina may be in disagreement with the decision.

  9. The cohabitation law was a bad way to make polygamy illegal. But, making polygamy,or polyandry legal is not a good thing and will play heck with domestic relations law if applied to other states. For example, what happens if Mr. Brown dies, then the Brown sister wives hit 65 and are ready to draw social security? Do they get their husband’s social security, each and every one of them, or do they have to split it? How would you draft a QUADRO if one of the wives want’s to divorce? What if one or more of the wives wants some extra husbands??? What if Mr. Brown and one of the wives divorce? Is the whole polygamous marriage also dissolved? Or, if it just applies to one of the sister wives, how do you figure child support?

    Perhaps, we can go back in history and expand marriages to include some more outdated stuff, like concubinage?

    Squeeky Fromm
    Girl Reporter

    1. squeeky – the same legal thinking that made same sex marriage legal in several states will make plural marriages legal.

  10. Looks good. What exactly in laymen’s terms does it mean? Do I understand that a man cohabiting with more than one woman in a household, even if only married to one or none, was previously being criminalized? (and now cannot be)

  11. JT Thank you for making efforts to expand individual opportunities for ….. life , liberty and the pursuit of happiness #LLPOH

  12. Nice job. They are probably going to appeal because their nose is out of joint. So, more fun ahead.

  13. Congratulations, professor. Although I do not support polygamy as the ideal model of marriage, the cohabit phrase in the law was inappropriate.

  14. A long road to justice, hopefully coming to its conclusions. Congratulations to the victors!

  15. Outstanding work, Prof. Turley. I look forward to reading the opinion this evening.

  16. There are many legal blogs by law professors. One of the aspects of this blog is that you work cases. You have real world experience. That is what is important. Your real world experience is a big bonus to your students and us. Complimenti!

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