GW Constitutional Law Professor files challenge to Utah Law criminalizing polygamous relations and cohabitation



At the U.S. Federal District Court for the District of Utah, George Washington University Law Professor Jonathan Turley and a GW litigation team will file a historic challenge to Utah’s law criminalizing polygamous relations and cohabitation.

For two years, Professor Turley has served as counsel to the Brown family, the cast members of the TLC reality show Sister Wives based on a polygamous family in Utah. The state announced more than a year ago that the Browns were under criminal investigation. While the investigation found no evidence of child abuse or child brides, prosecutors have stated publicly that they are still committing felonies on their television program by living as “spiritual spouses.” The Brown family—Kody Brown, Christine Brown, Janelle Brown, Meri Brown and Robyn Sullivan, all now living in Nevada—will now be the plaintiffs in this challenge alleging an array of constitutional violations from equal protection to due process to free exercise of religion.

“We are honored to represent the Brown family in this historic challenge,” said Professor Turley. “We believe that this case represents the strongest factual and legal basis for a challenge to the criminalization of polygamy ever filed in the federal courts. We are not demanding the recognition of polygamous marriage. We are only challenging the right of the state to prosecute people for their private relations and demanding equal treatment with other citizens in living their lives according to their own beliefs.

“This action seeks to protect one of the defining principles of this country, what Justice Louis Brandeis called ‘the right to be left alone.’ In that sense, it is a challenge designed to benefit not just polygamists but all citizens who wish to live their lives according to their own values—even if those values run counter to those of the majority in the state.”

The filing is an action for injunctive and declaratory relief. The complaint contains seven separate constitutional challenges to the criminalization of plural families. It expressly does not challenge the Utah Constitution’s ban on polygamous marriages—leaving intact the state’s policy not to recognize plural marriage. It only challenges the criminalization of plural relationships and families.

Professor Turley is being assisted in this case by Salt Lake litigator Adam Alba, one of his former students from the class of 2010, GW Law students Joe Haupt and Geoff Turley (no relation) and Professor Turley’s assistant and paralegal student Ashley Klearman. Professor Turley and his team will be filing the action in person on July 13, 2011, in Salt Lake City.

In related legal issues, Professor Turley is currently serving as a legal expert in a case before the Canadian Supreme Court (British Columbia) addressing the Canadian criminalization of both polygamy and conjugal unions. The court is considering whether the law violates the United Nation’s Charter and other human rights instruments and Professor Turley was retained as the expert on U.S. and international laws in the area.

Throughout his career, Professor Turley has handled a variety of high-profile cases including his representation of five former Attorneys General during the Clinton Impeachment; his successful challenge of the Elizabeth Morgan Act (the first law struck down as a bill of attainder in decades); and his recent representation of Judge Thomas Porteous in his impeachment trial before the United States Senate this year. Last month, Professor Turley and another GW Law student litigation team filed the challenge of members of Congress to the Libyan War in federal court.

In addition to teaching constitutional and torts law classes and seminars, Professor Turley, the J.B. and Maurice Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law, provides real legal experiences to GW Law students through cases like this and projects he directs, including the Environmental Law Advocacy Center and the Project for Older Prisoners. For the past four years, he has run an event featuring a mock trial of the Big Bad Wolf that has engaged more than 30 law students who volunteered hundreds of pro bono hours to teach civics and the law to more than 1,500 local elementary school children.