HOUSTON — Bringing polygamist families closer to regaining custody of their children, a divided Texas Supreme Court agreed Thursday that the state illegally seized 468 girls and boys from a West Texas ranch last month on unproven grounds of physical and sexual abuse.
State officials said they would move swiftly to return the children.
The 6-3 decision, upholding a ruling of the Third Court of Appeals last week, directed a state judge to revoke the custody order removing the children from Yearning for Zion ranch in Eldorado.
But it gave no timetable for the children's return and said that the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services could still seek authority to protect any of the children in individual cases.
"We are disappointed, but we understand and respect the court's decision and will take immediate steps to comply," Patrick Crimmins, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, said in a statement after the ruling. The department won custody of the children after a raid on April 3.
Many parents and their lawyers were jubilant.
"It's a great victory," said Rod Parker, a Salt Lake City lawyer and longtime representative of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which broke with the Mormon Church over the Mormons' repudiation of plural marriage. "They confirmed what the Court of Appeals said, which is that the children were taken from their parents illegally and they must be returned."
In its ruling May 23, the Court of Appeals said the state had failed to establish any immediate danger to the children and called their seizure illegal. The state appealed.
The Supreme Court, in a terse ruling that was barely four pages long, said. "We are not inclined to disturb the Court of Appeals' decision." It added: "On the record before us, removal of the children was not warranted."
In a partial dissent with two other justices, Justice Harriet O'Neill said the state had acted reasonably in seeking to remove "demonstrably endangered" pubescent girls but abused its discretion by removing younger girls and boys as well.
In its petition to overturn the appeals court ruling, the Department of Family and Protective Services said that girls in the compound reported being consigned to marriages by a church elder, "Uncle Merrill," and that "no age was too young to marry and they wanted to have as many babies as they could."
The Supreme Court ruled that the agency had means short of wholesale removal to protect any child in immediate danger.
Some expressed disappointment at the turn of events. Benjamin Bistline, a former sect member and a historian in Colorado City, Ariz., said the Supreme Court ruling would encourage FLDS leaders to continue their practice of polygamy and under-age marriages.