District Court (Third District)

Entity: 275
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. Established as a trial court of general jurisdiction, its purpose was to provide for the equitable distribution of justice to the people of the district and to help keep the domestic peace.

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 Third 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. In a number of instances the case load in the Third District Court required the assistance of a second 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, 12 had been assigned to the territorial Third District. Of the 10 extinct counties from the territorial period, 8 were at one time included in the Third District (Carson, Desert, Greasewood, Green River, Humbolt, Malad, St. Mary's, and Shambip).

Originally consisting of Iron, Sanpete, and Utah counties in central and southern Utah, district boundaries were changed after only two months when Sanpete and Utah counties were moved into other districts leaving Iron as the lone county assigned to the Third District. Iron was replaced as the solitary county attached to the district by Carson County in January 1855. The district was expanded a year later to include Salt Lake, Tooele, St. Mary's, and Shambip counties. Carson, St. Mary's, and Shambip counties were transferred to the second district in 1859 but the district continued to grow as nine additional counties (Box Elder, Cache, Davis, Desert, Greasewood, Green River, Malad, Summit, and Weber) were assigned to the district. Three of these counties had become extinct by 1862 as Desert County was incorporated into Tooele County and Greasewood and Malad were assimilated into Box Elder County. Green River County became part of the newly created Wyoming Territory in 1868. Meanwhile, two newly created counties-- Morgan (1862) and Rich (1865)--were added. A major realignment of judicial districts occurred on February 20, 1880, when the Legislative Assembly transferred five counties in northern Utah (Box Elder, Cache, Morgan, Rich, and Weber) out of the Third District and combined them with nine counties from central Utah to form an enlarged First District. The four remaining counties (Davis, Salt Lake, Summit, and Tooele) continued to make up the district until statehood.

Through periodic proclamations the territorial governor set terms for court sessions in each judicial district. After statehood the practice of hearing cases from throughout the district primarily at Salt Lake City, 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 Third District was composed of Salt Lake, Summit, and Tooele counties.