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Polygamist lawyers in Utah face bar investigation

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Seven Utah lawyers are violating rules of conduct because they are polygamists, according to a new complaint filed with the Utah Bar Association.

The complaint was filed by a woman named Melissa Ellis who used to belong to a northern Utah polygamous group. She believes Utah should take action against polygamists who hold public office or professional licenses, The Salt Lake Tribune reports .

University of Utah of law professor Linda F. Smith said it’s unlikely the complaint will lead to discipline.

“Lawyers have been polygamists in this state for a long time,” Smith said. “This isn’t that new.”

Billy Walker, chief disciplinary counsel with an office of professional conduct that handles bar complaints in Utah, told The Associated Press that the organization isn’t allowed to speak about any complaints.

One attorney listed in the complaint is Paul E. Kingston, also the leader of a polygamous group called the Davis County Cooperative Society. Kingston didn’t return a voicemail from the AP left at his law office.

The Tribune reports that all of the attorneys accused in the complaint declined comment.

Ellis’ complaint cites a rule that defines misconduct as when attorneys “commit a criminal act that reflects adversely on the lawyer’s honesty, trustworthiness or fitness.”

Another section of the Utah State Bar rule defines misconduct as “involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation.”

Smith, the law professor who also sits on the Ethics Advisory Opinion Committee at the Utah State Bar, said history shows that the bar doesn’t consider consensual relationships between adults to constitute “untrustworthiness.”

She said former President Bill Clinton had his Arkansas law license was suspended for five years because he lied in a deposition — not because he committed adultery.

“The focus is on honesty,” Smith said.

Ellis, 34, is involved in an ongoing custody dispute with an ex-husband with whom she has four children. Her ex-husband had been represented at different points by two of the lawyers in the complaint.

She said members of the Davis County Cooperative Society, also known as the Kingston Group, provide free legal services to other member or trade for the services. She thinks that incentivizes members to take other people to court.

“The state’s not taking any action on anything,” said Ellis, adding that polygamy is “illegal, and they know it.”

Utah law makes polygamous relationships a felony punishable by up to five years in prison and up to 15 years if it’s committed along with a crime such as fraud or physical abuse.

Being married to more than one person, or bigamy, is illegal across the United States. The law Utah is considered stricter because of a unique provision that bars married people from living with a second “spiritual spouse.”

Drew Briney, a former Utah attorney who appeared in a season of the TLC reality show “Seeking Sister Wife,” said the bar complaint illustrates how many people unfairly associate polygamy with fraud and dishonesty.

“I hope this will allow a test case to finally challenge the bigamy statute in a lasting way,” Briney said in an email.

Jonathan Turley, a Washington, D.C., attorney who represented the Brown family from the television show “Sister Wives,” in a case challenging Utah’s bigamy law said if the attorneys are disciplined that could lead to a compelling court case.

Turley said it could constitute the “actual harm” the Browns lacked when they challenged Utah’s polygamy laws and lost.

The Browns initially scored a key legal victory in 2013 when a federal judge in Utah ruled the law violated polygamists’ right to privacy and religious freedom. But an appeals court in Denver decided the Browns could not sue because they were not charged under the Utah law. The legal saga ended when the U.S. Supreme Court in 2017 declined to hear the case.

“These lawyers should challenge the effort and underlying law,” Turley wrote in an email to 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.”

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Information from: The Salt Lake Tribune, http://www.sltrib.com

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