- The Washington Times - Friday, April 18, 2008

SAN ANGELO, Texas — A court hearing to decide the fate of the 416 children swept up in a raid on a West Texas polygamist sect descended into farce yesterday, with hundreds of lawyers in two packed buildings shouting objections and the judge struggling to maintain order.

The case — clearly one of the biggest, most convoluted child-custody hearings in U.S. history — presented an extraordinary tableau: big-city lawyers in suits and mothers in 19th-century, pioneer-style dresses, all packed into a courtroom and a nearby auditorium connected by video.

At issue was an attempt by the state of Texas to strip the parents of custody and place the children in foster homes because of evidence they were being physically and sexually abused by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS), a Mormon splinter group suspected of forcing underage girls into marriage with older men.

By evening, only three witnesses had testified, including state child welfare investigator Angie Voss, who said women may have had children when they were minors, some as young as age 13. At least five girls who are younger than 18 are now pregnant or have children, Ms. Voss said.

No decisions had been made on any of the youngsters, and the hearing was to continue today.

More details on life at the ranch emerged as Ms. Voss testified. She said that if a man fell out of favor with the FLDS, his wives and children would be assigned to other men. The children would then identify the new man as their father, creating a problem of identifying children’s family ties.

Texas District Judge Barbara Walther struggled to maintain order as she faced 100 lawyers in her 80-year-old Tom Green County courtroom and several hundred more participating over a grainy video feed from an ornate City Hall auditorium two blocks away.

The hearing disintegrated quickly into a barrage of shouted objections and attempts to file motions, with lawyers for the children rejecting objections made by the parents’ attorneys. When the judge sustained an objection to the prolonged questioning of the state trooper, the lawyers cheered.

Upon another objection about the proper admission of medical records of the children, the judge threw up her hands.

“I assume most of you want to make the same objection. Can I have a universal, ‘Yes, Judge’ ?” she said.

In both buildings, the hundreds of lawyers stood and responded in unison: “Yes, Judge.”

But she added to the chaos as well. Judge Walther refused to put medical records and other evidence in electronic form, which could be e-mailed among the lawyers, because it contained personal information. A courier had to run from the courthouse to the auditorium delivering one document at a time.

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