Mormons and the Courts

“It was in the judicial rather than the political field, however, that non-Mormons felt most keenly the dictatorial authority of the church. . . .At first the Mormons, believing that Gentile courts did not dispense justice, followed the advice of their leaders to use their own ecclesiastical tribunals in settlement of their mutual difficulties. Then the influx of Gentiles brought the Saints into legal entanglements that could be resolved only in territorial courts, other devices were employed to guard the interests of Church members. The legislature, for instance, by enactment in 1852 permitted anyone, with or without legal training, to serve as an attorney in court; two years later a more extensive act declared that only territorial laws, and those of Congress ‘when applicable,’ could be ‘read, argued, cited or adopted as precedent in any trial,’ Thus the Mormons tried to escape all laws, including English common law, that might serve to prejudice their search for autonomy. . . .

Of all the judicial defenses raised by the Church to protect itself, none caused so much trouble as the probate courts. In February 1852 the legislature gave these tribunals such exceptional powers that they came to have jurisdiction in criminal and civil cases. . . .In reply, many Gentiles insisted that thte extravagant augmentation of the probate courts’ authority was obvious proof of the Mormons’ ultimate intention to establish a community effectively independent of all federal control. W. W. Drummond, a federal judge who more than any other man brought about the Mormon War of 1857-58 . . . used this strange legal situation as one of his arguments for the need of an expedition against the Latter-day Saints.”