District Court (First District)

Entity: 273
Entity Type: State Government


Under authority granted by the United States Congress through sections nine and sixteen of the organic Act to Establish a Territorial Government for Utah (approved September 9, 1850), Governor Brigham Young (through a proclamation dated August 8, 1851) and the legislative assembly (through an Act Concerning the Judiciary, and for Judicial Purposes, approved October 4, 1851) organized three judicial court districts.

Biography/History Notes

Upon the organization of Utah territory by the U.S. Congress, the district courts were given the same jurisdiction in all cases arising under the Constitution and laws of the United States as was vested in the circuit and district courts of the United States. The first six days of the term, or so much as was necessary, were appropriated to the trial of causes arising under the U.S. Constitution and laws. District courts were empowered to naturalize resident aliens and call grand juries.

Utah's Legislative Assembly on February 4, 1852, passed legislation defining the jurisdiction of the territorial courts. Original jurisdiction, "both in civil and criminal cases, as well in chancery as at common law" was given to the district courts and the county probate courts. The district court was given "general supervision over all inferior courts, to prevent and correct abuses where no other remedy is provided." District court judges were charged to report all omissions, discrepancies, or other evident imperfections of the law to the legislature at each regular session. They were authorized to solemnize marriages and effect name changes.

Through the 1874 Poland Act Congress gave exclusive original jurisdiction in proceedings in chancery, all actions involving sums of $300 and greater, and all controversies where the title, possession or boundaries of land, or mines or mining claims were in dispute to the district courts. At the same time Congress limited the jurisdiction of the county probate courts to cases involving the probate of wills, the administration of the estates of deceased persons, and the guardianship of minors, idiots, and insane persons, and prohibited jurisdiction in civil, chancery, and criminal matters. In 1888 the district courts were granted exclusive jurisdiction in divorce cases.

Also in 1874 Congress amended the federal bankruptcy laws enacted in 1867, transferring responsibility for hearing bankruptcy cases from the territorial supreme court to the district courts. Although the law was repealed in 1878, cases could be completed under the terms of the old law provided that they were on file by September 1. Most of these cases were finalized by 1881, although a few weren't concluded until as late as 1888.

Civil matters involving large sums of money and criminal trials for felonies (serious crimes punishable by incarceration in prison) were adjudicated in the district court. The district court heard appeals to decisions by United States commissioners, county probate judges, and justices of the peace. Decisions of the district court could be appealed to the territorial supreme court. A writ of error or appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States from the decisions of the district court upon any writ of habeas corpus involving the question of personal freedom was also allowed.

At its inception, the First District court in and for the Territory of Utah was administered by the individual supreme court judge assigned to hold court in the district and the clerk of the court. The court was given statutory authority to adopt rules "to carry out the purposes of the statutes, and to subserve the ends of justice." Judges were appointed to the bench by the president of the United States with the advice and consent of the senate and assigned by the governor or legislative assembly to a specific district. A provision of the 1874 Poland Act enabled district court judges to request assistance from a justice in either of the other two districts in holding all or part of any term. The acts of the assisting judge would be recognized as having the same force as those of the resident judge. The court clerk, bailiffs, and court reporters were appointed by the judge and served at the pleasure of the court. The clerk, who kept office at the place where court was held, also served as the register in chancery.

From as early as 1850, Utah has been divided into judicial districts. There were only three districts in the territory from its organization in 1850 until 1892, when a fourth district was added. Regular reapportionment of the judicial districts by the legislature changed the make up of each district dramatically during the territorial period. Of the 27 counties existing at statehood, 24 had been assigned to the territorial First District. Of the 10 extinct counties from the territorial period, half were at one time included in the First District (Cedar, Desert, Greasewood, Green River, and Malad).

Originally consisting of Salt Lake and Tooele counties, district boundaries were changed after only two months when Davis, Utah, and Weber counties were added. Summit, Desert, and Green River counties were added in 1855. Salt Lake, Tooele, and Utah were removed in 1856 while Box Elder, Cache, Greasewood, and Malad were added. The nine northern Utah counties in the First District were all replaced in 1859 by eight counties in central and southern Utah (Beaver, Cedar, Iron, Juab, Millard, Sanpete, Utah, and Washington). Cedar County was merged into Utah County and three counties in southern Utah (Beaver, Iron, and Washington) were removed in 1862 while Wasatch County joined the four remaining counties from central Utah (Juab, Millard, Sanpete, and Utah). Newly formed counties were added in 1865 (Piute and Sevier) and again in 1880 (Emery and Uintah). A major realignment of judicial districts occurred on February 20, 1880. The Legislative Assembly transferred five counties in northern Utah out of the Third District and combined them with nine counties from central Utah to form an expanded First District.

This far-flung First District was divided into two geographic divisions which surrounded the four remaining counties in the Third District. Two bills intended to equalize the case load of the district courts were rejected by the Legislative Assembly in 1888. One would have merged the entire southern division of the First District with the Second Judicial District. A less drastic measure would have moved only Millard and Sevier counties from the First Judicial District into the Second District. Later that year Congress authorized a fourth district judge to be assigned to Utah in legislation passed June 25, 1888. John W. Judd was appointed as an associate justice of the Supreme Court for the Territory of Utah by President Grover Cleveland on July 19, 1888, and assigned to Ogden, seat of the northern division of the First District, in a proclamation by territorial Governor Caleb West dated August 30, 1888. Grand County was added to the southern division in 1890. A memorial to Congress (approved January 29, 1890) requested the authority to create a fourth district which eventually was granted thus enabling the Legislative Assembly to organize the new district in 1892. The five counties embraced by the northern division of the First Judicial District (Box Elder, Cache, Morgan, Rich, and Weber) were assigned to the new Fourth District when it was organized by the Legislative Assembly on March 10, 1892. The remaining counties from the southern division, joined by the newly organized San Juan County, made up the reconstituted First District. The final change before statehood took place in 1894 when Carbon County and was assigned to the First District.

Through periodic proclamations the territorial governor set terms for court sessions in each judicial district. Regular court sessions were scheduled throughout the district between 1851 and 1859, requiring court officers of the First District court to travel to as many as four different counties (Green River, Salt Lake, Utah, and Weber) during a calendar year. Appointed as the seat of the First Judicial District Court in 1859, Provo continued in this role as the judicial seat of the southern division. After moving into the First District Ogden served as the seat of the district's northern division. Following the removal of the northern division, most terms were held in Provo though some were held in Manti. After statehood the practice of hearing cases from throughout the district primarily at a single location (the seat for the judicial district), was replaced by holding regular terms at the county seat of each county within the district. The new constitution established seven districts throughout Utah in an effort to place the courts within easy access of all the state's citizens. The newly reorganized First District was composed of Cache, Box Elder and Rich counties.