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Paula Bolyard

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January 14, 2013 - 9:00 am
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Meri admitted that she struggled when Christine joined the family.

In Season 2, Robyn gives birth to a baby boy as the family prepares for a move from Utah to Las Vegas, Nevada. The family faces a major crisis when they try to qualify for mortgages on four luxury homes in a gated community and they discover that dear, sweet Robyn has a serious credit problem. She tells the family that her ex-husband left her saddled with $25,000 in credit card debt and a medical bill that sent her into bankruptcy. It turns out that she’s not the only one. In 1997 Janelle (wife #2) filed for bankruptcy, saying she was a single mother with three children, $388/month in income, and no financial support from Kody Brown for their three minor children. She was unable to pay $20,000 in outstanding debt — a combination of credit cards, medical bills, student loans, and car payments. By 2005 the household again filed for bankruptcy — this time in the names of Kody and Meri. The clan had amassed a stunning $85,000 in mostly credit card debt on top of their $100,000 home mortgage, which also had a $32,000 home equity loan tacked onto it.

Polygamy isn’t cheap and you can’t live on credit cards indefinitely, so it seems that the TLC show came along at just the right time. TLC doesn’t disclose how much they pay their stars, but some estimate it’s in the range of $75,000 per episode.

Aside from the family’s financial problems, there have been legal issues as well. The Browns claim they fled Utah because they feared criminal prosecution for their polygamist lifestyle. While that sounds like exactly the kind of overblown drama we’ve come to expect from these TV reality shows, this one includes important legal issues that could impact the entire country.

As it turns out, polygamy is illegal in Utah — and in Nevada and every other state in the country. While Sister Wives portrays Kody Brown as a shaggy-haired, fun-loving dad, more than a year before the show was even announced, he publicly spoke out in support of legalized polygamy, granting interviews to the BBC and other media outlets in early 2009 as he joined a lobbying effort at the Utah state legislature. He made no secret of the fact that he knew he was breaking the law, so it probably came as no surprise when, amid the publicity of the show, two individuals filed complaints with the local police department and the Utah County Attorney threatened to prosecute the family.

The Brown family, likely seeing the dual benefits of boosting ratings and drawing attention to their political cause, basically told the Utah County Attorney to “bring it on. “

They sued the Utah County Attorney and state officials, claiming that Utah’s bigamy statute violates  their constitutional rights to privacy, due process, equal protection, free exercise of religion, free speech, and freedom of association.

Utah County Attorney Jeffrey Buhman ultimately decided not to file charges against the Browns. In fact, Buhman adopted a formal policy saying they would not prosecute bigamy charges unless “the bigamy occurs in conjunction with another crime or a person under the age of 18 was a party to the bigamous marriage or relationship.”

Court briefs have been flying back and forth, as the U.S. District Court decides whether or not the case should go forward now that the Browns have moved to Nevada and there are no charges pending against them in Utah.

In a hearing in July, U.S. District Judge Waddoups grilled the state attorney about his motives for dropping the charges and adopting a new policy:

U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups’ blunt questions had a state attorney on his heels for much of a 45-minute hearing Wednesday as he tried to defend Utah County Attorney Jeff Buhman’s recent policy change regarding the statute.

“Is the act of the Utah County attorney simply an attempt to avoid the issue of what consenting adults can do constitutionally?” Waddoups asked assistant attorney general Jerrold Jensen.”

It raises an interesting question. Did the Utah County Attorney drop the charges against the Brown family and soften the county’s bigamy prosecution policy in order to avoid a legal battle that could potentially overturn Utah’s bigamy laws — and perhaps those in the other 49 states? If the Browns prevail it will be the first time in 120 years thata district court has considered whether criminal restrictions on polygamy are unconstitutional. The Browns are hoping to keep the case alive for that very reason.

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