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Federal Ruling Leaves Polygamy in Limbo

Keoni Cabral via CC Flickr

Utah’s law prohibiting bigamy has been reinstated following a ruling by federal appeals court judges. The move has dealt a legal blow to the Brown family from the reality TV show “Sister Wives.”

On Monday, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver dismissed a 2013 ruling that had overturned Utah’s ban on plural marriage. University of Utah law professor Amos Guiora says the decision leaves polygamy in a state of legal limbo.

“I don’t believe that you’re going to see a rash of prosecutions,” Guiora says. “In the same way, I don’t think you will see a rash of people ending their polygamous relationships.”

State authorities have long said they don't go after polygamists who otherwise follow the law, and they reiterated that stance after the ruling. Officials wanted the clause kept on the books to help in criminal cases related to polygamy. But Guiora says there needs to be a clear resolution once and for all on the question of whether polygamy itself is a crime.

“There seems to be - let’s call it hesitation on the part of authorities to prosecute polygamists, and I think where this will all lead to ultimately, and I don’t think there’s any alternative, but for this question to come before the Supreme Court of the United States,” Guiora says.  

The Browns will appeal the ruling said their lawyer, Jonathan Turley, but it’s not clear if this is a viable case for the U.S. Supreme Court. Ken Driggs is a public defender in Atlanta who writes about polygamous groups. The problem, according to Driggs, is that Kody Brown and his four wives were never charged with a crime.

“You have to get a conviction, you have to have a sentence, you have to have a loss of freedom before you can then attack the statute that you’re prosecuted under,” Driggs says.  

For that to happen, authorities would have to change their policy and start prosecuting polygamists who are otherwise following the law.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story reported that federal appeals court judges upheld Utah’s law prohibiting bigamy. In fact, judges dismissed a lower court’s ruling overturning the law. As a result of that dismissal, the law prohibiting bigamy in Utah has been reinstated.

Andrea Smardon is new at KUER, but she has worked in public broadcasting for more than a decade. Most recently, she worked as a reporter and news announcer for WGBH radio. While in Boston, she produced stories for Morning Edition, Marketplace Money, and The World. Her print work was published in The Boston Globe and Prior to that, she worked at Seattleââ
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