Swift Justice? Houston Criminal Defense Attorney John Floyd Opines on the FLDS Debacle
This column has examined the FLDS case extensively since the military-style raid on the Yearning for Zion Ranch in Eldorado, Texas on April 3, 2008. There are two things that stand out about this tragic case: First, the raid was totally unnecessary and most certainly unlawful; and, second, the financial cost to the state of Texas is a staggering $7 million and the emotional cost to the FLDS parents and children is immeasurable.
Texas residents were from the very beginning outraged at the sight of grieving mothers having their children – a total of 468, two-thirds of whom were 5 years of age or younger – snatched from their bosom. Equally outrageous was the fact that the state’s Child Protective Services on April 17 and 18 waltz into a court of law amidst national media attention and presented its “evidence” to justify the decision to remove these children from their parents and place them in foster care. It was a pathetic spectacle. A state district court endorsed the spectacle by approving CPS’s actions.
But on May 22, 2008 the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Austin overturned the decision by San Angelo County District Judge Barbara Walters who had ruled that CPS had presented adequate evidence that the FLDS children were in “immediate danger” of physical and sexual abuse at the YFZ ranch which warranted their removal from the custody of their parents and their placement in foster care. The Texas Supreme Court upheld the appeals court decision on May 29, 2008.
And what was this “evidence” of “immediate danger”? Nothing except that CPS believed the children were in such danger of abuse because of a “pervasive belief system” by FLDS church members that girls can, and should, get married at the age of puberty. CPS did not present an iota of evidence that FLDS members at the YFZ ranch practiced this religious tenet. CPS did not present an iota of evidence that any underage child had been forced into “spiritual marriage” as it had indicated through leaks to the media. CPS did offer evidence that five teenage girls had been impregnated – presumably at the YFZ ranch. It was conceded by CPS that these pregnancies had occurred when the girls were 15 or 16 years of age. Until 2005, it was lawful for a teenage girl with parental consent to marry at 14 and the current age for parent consent marriage is 16. The five marriages that produced these pregnancies, therefore, could have been legal under Texas law. CPS did not offer any evidence that the pregnancies occurred as a result of some unlawful “sexual assault” by an older FLDS members, as had been repeatedly suggested through media leaks.
It is indeed a social tragedy that an agency named “Child Protective Services” would inflict such emotional pain and distress on parents and children with no other evidence than its belief that the FLDS’s “pervasive belief system” sanctioning female marriage after puberty put all 468 children in “immediate danger.” The arrogance and incompetence of that kind of agency decision-making is mind-boggling. Texas lawmakers should promptly conduct legislative hearings to determine who was responsible for this social tragedy.
The FLDS case is also disturbing because of its potential political implications. In a June 1, 2008 column, Houston Chronicle columnist Rick Casey pointed out that CPS was forced to use its own staff attorneys during the court proceedings while state leaders “appeared to seek to place some distance between themselves and CPS.” The evidence suggest there was a political skunk in the proverbial woodpile. After pointing out that the Texas Constitution requires the Attorney General to represent the state “in all suits and pleas in the Supreme Court of the State in which the State may be a party …,” Casey discussed the political implications of the FLDS case:
“At first, the AG’s office informed the Supreme Court it may be filing a brief in the case, but later in the day notified the court it would not.
“Jerry Strickland, a spokesman for Attorney General Greg Abbott, said the case was left to CPS staff attorneys because ‘they have a specific expertise and knowledge base’ in the relevant law.
“A lawyer familiar both with family law and state politics, who asked not to be named, had a different explanation for the Attorney General’s unwillingness to put his name on the appeal.
“’This was a political statement to the judges: I’m the attorney general and I think this is too scary, and you better know the same thing,’ he said.”
There may have been another, more hidden “political statement” made not only to the judges but the entire state Republican Party. Senator John McCain is the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, and a prominent Mormon Church member, has been linked by media reports as the leading candidate to be McCain’s vice-presidential running mate. McCain and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama have both experienced serious political problems because of religious affiliations. Prolonged litigation in the FLDS case would not have served the political interests of a possible McCain/Romney ticket.
State “politics” were indeed sufficient to signal to the judges hearing the FLDS appeal that “this [case] is too scary.” But there would be even greater political urgency to resolve the case if the McCain campaign is actually and seriously considering Romney at a VP choice. Romney’s Mormon faith unfairly imposed political baggage on him during his expensive bid to secure the Republican presidential nomination. A high profile case like the FLDS raid, and its aftermath, would certainly make the former governor’s religious faith a part of the presidential campaign – especially in light of the fact that Obama’s past ties to Rev. Jeremiah Wright and McCain’s past ties to Rev. John Hagee will also be political fodder in that campaign. “Guilt by association” has become a political fixture in the current power struggle between Republicans and Democrats to occupy the White House. There are no sacred cows in this vicious, and venal, power struggle.
Unless criminal charges are filed, the FLDS case will disappear from the social and political radar as it should. The “case” should never have been a case to begin with. Overzealous state bureaucrats influenced the Texas Rangers to saddle up and ride against women and children. It became a tragic display of political arrogance. The lives of parents and children were shattered, some perhaps permanently. Whatever hidden “political statements” may have been behind the judicial rulings that brought closure to this controversy are really not that important when compared to the human tragedy involved in the lives of the parents and children. Whatever the reason, the rule of law prevailed.
Perhaps FLDS church members at the YFZ ranch can now worship in peace and co-exist the rest of the communities in this great, free-thinking state. The church has vowed to abide by any restrictions imposed by the court and to adhere to any state laws governing marriage. What the FLDS church members believe in, and how they worship God, is, quite frankly, their own affair and is none of the business of the State of Texas, sanctimonious news pundits, and self-righteous social workers.