Thursday, October 28, 2010

LDS Church Supreme Court Cases (1880's and 1890's)

While looking up history and documentation, I read about a number of court cases that had been appealed all the way to the United States Supreme Court.  Most of these cases involved polygamists and the interpretation of the law concerning them, and some concerned the constitutionality of the laws passed to legislate the "Mormon problem."  As a way of making them easier to find (putting them all in one place), I put this post together.

This is NOT an exhaustive list, nor do the descriptions of the cases demonstrate a comprehensive knowledge of the case.  This is just a short list, with short descriptions to give an overview of each case.  The first trial is from 1878/1879, not exactly 1880, but it's close enough for me.  I saved 136 US 1 (Mormon Church v. U.S.) to the very end.  Although this was by far the longest read of any single case I went through, it was fascinating, I thought, to see how the Supreme Court handled this case. 

Many, many interesting ideas were put forth in all of the cases that I did not quote.  I leave further research for the interested reader, as each case has a web reference attached to it.

Other posts in this series:

  1. [George] Reynolds v. United States
    1. Reference:  98 US 145
    2. Argued:  November 14-15, 1878.  Decided:  May 5, 1879.
    3. 1874:  Church leaders, confident in the unconstitutionality of the Morrill Law (signed July 8, 1862), were anxious to have a "test case" brought before the Supreme Court concerning their First Amendment rights to practice religion.  They did not want to wait around for legislatures to get their polygamy bill right while many of their followers were being harassed.  So, when U.S. attorney, William Carey, promised to stop his attempts to indict Church leaders during the test case trial, the First Presidency (Brigham Young, George A. Smith, Daniel H. Wells) chose 32 year old George Reynolds, a secretary in the office of the Church president, and recently married for a second time to a plural wife, as a defendant (he volunteered) to stand in for the Church.  Reynolds cooperated completely with the prosecution's efforts against him.  He provided witnesses and other evidence necessary to prosecute the case successfully.  Reynolds was convicted in 1875, and sentenced to two years hard labor in prison and a fine of $500 dollars (later changed to 2 years imprisonment only).  The resultant conviction wasn't completely unexpected, but it just meant that appeal would be made to a higher court in the Territory.
    4. 1876:  Utah Territorial Supreme Court upholds the lower court ruling.  Appeal is made to the United States Supreme Court for a hearing on First Amendment rights.
    5. 1879:  Key phrase from the Supreme Court ruling:  "Laws are made for the government of actions, and while they cannot interfere with mere religious belief and opinions, they may with practices."  In other words, polygamy was ruled an outward practice that can be legislated against, and it will not interfere with 1st Amendment rights.
    6. Ruling was unanimous (9-0):  "Upon careful consideration of the whole case, we are satisfied that no error was committed by the court below.  Judgment affirmed."  The Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act of 1862, is constitutional; i.e., George Reynolds is guilty.
  2. [Rudger] Clawson v. United States
    1. Reference:  113 US 143
    2. Argued:  January 5, 1885.  Decided January 19, 1885.
    3. 1884, Oct:  Rudger Clawson is the first unlawful cohabitation case to be prosecuted under the Edmunds Act (signed March 22, 1882) with a trial jury; he is also Judge Charles Zane's first polygamy case.  Rudger Clawson was found guilty of polygamy and unlawful cohabitation by the jury.  He was sentenced to 4 years in prison and an $800 fine.
    4. First of two appeals:  Mr. Clawson was not allowed out on bail when an appeal was pending in the court system (territorial supreme court, etc.).  He sued for a writ of habeas corpus, which was denied.
    5. Ruling was unanimous (9-0):  "There is no error in the record, and the judgment is Affirmed."
  3. Murphy v. Ramsey
    1. Reference:  114 US 15
    2. Argued:  January 28, 1885.  Decided:  March 23, 1885.
    3. Five plaintiffs argued that the Utah Commission illegally barred them from voting in the November 1882 election after they supplied proper credentials, and accepted the proper oath. 
    4. Ruling was unanimous (9-0):  The court ruled that 3 of the 5 were living in a polygamous relationship, and were therefore ineligible to vote - Judgment affirmed.  For the other two, it was found that they should have been allowed to vote and their case was "remanded for further proceedings." 
    5. This ruling declared the Edmunds Act of 1882, constitutional and nullified the test oath formulated by the Utah Commission; they "have no power over the registration of voters or the conduct of elections."
  4. [Rudger] Clawson v. United States
    1. Reference:  114 US 477
    2. Argued:  April 8, 1885.  Decided:  April 20, 1885.
    3. Second of two appeals:  Mr. Clawson "moved to set aside the indictment on the ground that the grand jury was not legally constituted in that qualified grand jurors, drawn and summoned, were illegally excluded from the grand jury on the challenge of the prosecuting attorney that the grand jury selection was allowed improperly."
    4. Ruling was unanimous (9-0):  "The record shows no error, and the judgment is Affirmed."
  5. [Angus M.] Cannon v. United States
    1. Reference:  116 US 55
    2. Argued:  November 20, 23, 1885.  Decided:  December 14, 1885.
    3. 1885, Jan:  Angus M. Cannon, President of the Salt Lake Stake, was brought before a preliminary hearing on charges of polygamy and unlawful cohabitation.  In May 1885, he was convicted of unlawful cohabitation; sentenced to 6 months in prison and a $300 fine.
    4. In his appeal, he argued that he had not cohabited with his wives (intimately) since the passage of the Edmunds Law in March 1882; therefore, he could not be guilty of unlawful cohabitation.
    5. The Supreme Court defines unlawful cohabitation:  "Committed by a man who lives in the same house with two women, and eats at their respective tables one-third of his time, or thereabouts, and holds them out to the world, by his language or conduct, or both, as his wives, and it is not necessary to the commission of the offense that he and the two women, or either of them, should occupy the same bed or sleep in the same room or that he should have sexual intercourse with either of them."
    6. Ruling was not unanimous (7-2):  Judgment Affirmed.
      1. Dissenting opinion:  Mr. Justice Miller and Mr. Justice Field.  "I think that the act of Congress, when prohibiting cohabitation with more than one woman, meant unlawful habitual sexual intercourse. ... I know of no instance in which the word 'cohabitation' has been used to describe a criminal offense where it did not imply sexual intercourse."
  6. [Lorenzo] Snow v. United States
    1. Reference:  118 US 346
    2. Argued:  April 28-29, 1886.  Decided:  May 10, 1886.
    3. 1885, Nov:  Lorenzo Snow was arrested in Brigham City, Utah by 7 Deputy U.S. Federal Marshals.  He was indicted for unlawful cohabitation and stood trial for these offenses in December 1885.  He was the defendant in 3 separate indictments and trials for cohabiting with 7 women in 1883, 1884, and 1885.  He had, like Angus M. Cannon, lived with only one wife (Minnie) for a number of years.  He was convicted in each trial, and sentenced to 6 months in prison (18 months total) and $300 fine ($900 total - $21,000 today).  While his appeal was in process, he was released on $15,000 bail ($350,000 today).
    4. He appealed to the Supreme Court on a writ of error in the judgment rendered - the same as Angus M. Cannon used with his case.
    5. Ruling:  "There is no provision of law under which this Court can review a judgment of the Supreme Court of a Territory, on a conviction on an indictment for cohabiting with more than one woman [under Section 3 of the Edmunds Act] ... The question of jurisdiction was not considered in fact in that case, nor alluded to in the decision, nor presented to the Court by the counsel for the United States, nor referred to by either party at the argument or in the briefs. Probably both parties desired a decision on the merits. The question was overlooked by all the members of the Court. But as the case was decided at the present term and the want of jurisdiction in it is clear, we have decided to vacate our judgment and recall the mandate and dismiss the writ of error for want of jurisdiction in order that the reported decision may not appear to be a precedent for the exercise of jurisdiction by this Court in a case of the kind.  Dismissed for want of jurisdiction."
    6. In order to remain consistent, the court also recalled its mandate from the Cannon case and dismissed it also upon the same grounds - dismissed for want of jurisdiction.
  7. In Re [Lorenzo] Snow v. United States
    1. Reference:  120 US 274
    2. Argued:  January 21, 1887.  Decided:  February 7, 1887.
    3. Lorenzo Snow's attorney, Franklin S. Richards, filed a writ of habeas corpus after the first term of 6 months in prison had been served.  The writ was denied by Judge Zane, and then appealed.
    4. The court ruled that the three indictments were actually one continuous offense, and that the other two are combined into the first.  This ruling stopped the practice of "segregation" of offenses against polygamists.
    5. Ruling was unanimous (9-0):  "The order and judgment of the District Court for the Third Judicial District of Utah Territory must be reversed and the case be remanded to that court with a direction to grant the writ of habeas corpus prayed for and to take such proceedings thereon as may be in conformity with law and not inconsistent with the opinion of this court."
  8. Hans Nielson, Petitioner
    1. Reference:  131 US 176
    2. Argued:  April 19, 22, 1889.  Decided:  May 13, 1889.
    3. Hans Nielson was convicted of adultery and unlawful cohabitation with the same woman.  These were two separate indictments for the same offense.  He had been in prison for the full term of his unlawful cohabitation sentence when he sued for a writ of habeas corpus.  Like Lorenzo Snow's case before him, it was decided that each of the offenses was actually the same.
    4. Ruling was unanimous (9-0):  "... the conviction of the petitioner of the crime of unlawful cohabitation was a bar to his subsequent prosecution for the crime of adultery; that the court was without authority to give judgment and sentence in the latter case, and should have vacated and set aside the same when the petitioner applied for a habeas corpus; and that the writ should have been granted, and the petitioner discharged.  The judgment of the district court is reversed, and the cause remanded with directions to issue a habeas corpus as prayed for by the petitioner, and proceed thereon according to law."
  9. [Nephi W.] Clayton v. Utah Territory
    1. Reference:  132 US 632
    2. Argued:  December 5, 1889.  Decided:  January 6, 1890.
    3. Mr. Clayton assumed the office of Territorial Auditor in 1879, and was then duly elected to this position in 1880.  The Governor of the Territory of Utah (Eli H. Murray), appointed Arthur Pratt Territory Auditor in 1886; however, the legislature failed to approve of him or any other party brought before them for this position.  Mr. Clayton would not give up his office, paperwork, or anything else having to do with the position.
    4. "Under the organic act of that territory, the power to appoint an auditor of public accounts is vested exclusively in the governor and council."  Mr. Clayton is to vacate the office and turn over all materials of the office to Mr. Pratt.
    5. Ruling was unanimous (9-0):  The judgment of the supreme court of the Territory of Utah is Affirmed.
  10. [Samuel D.] Davis v. Beason
    1. Reference:  133 US 333
    2. Argued:  December 9-10, 1889.  Decided:  February 3, 1890.
    3. Samuel D. Davis registered to be a voter in Oneida County, Idaho, when he was a member of the Mormon Church, "which [he] knew taught, advised, counseled and encouraged its members and devotees to commit the crimes of bigamy and polygamy as duties arising and resulting from membership in said order."  To do this he lied when taking a "test oath" that stated he was not a member of any organization (like the Mormon Church).  He was found guilty and sentenced to pay a fine of $500, or in default of this payment, be remanded to the county jail for 250 days.
    4. Samuel D. Davis sued for a writ of habeas corpus charging that he was illegally imprisoned.
    5. "Bigamy and polygamy are crimes by the laws of the United States, by the laws of Idaho, and by the laws of all civilized and Christian countries, and to call their advocacy a tenet of religion is to offend the common sense of mankind."  This opinion is not open to any constitutional or legal objection.  Additionally, the admission of a test oath to every potential voter "is not open to any valid legal objection."
    6. Ruling was unanimous (9-0):  The judgment of the court below is therefore Affirmed.
  11. Mormon Church v. United States
    1. Reference:  136 US 1
    2. Argued:  January 16-18, 1889.  Decided:  May 19, 1890.
    3. The Edmunds-Tucker Act (took effect March 3, 1887) called for the dissolution of the Mormon Church (as a corporation), and forfeiture of all property owned by it (with exception of the Temple Block).  Estimates on February 19, 1887, put Church personal property value at $2 million, and real property value at $1 million.
    4. President John Taylor, as Trustee-in-Trust for the Church, transfered Church property to the Presiding Bishopric (William B. Preston, Robert T. Burton, and John R. Winder) for $1 and other ecclesiastical corporations after the passage of the Act.  These land/property transfers were called "secret trusts" by the court.  The defendant (the Church) avers that it owns no property at this time.  All conveyances of property were annulled by the court - "evidently intended as an evasion of the law that the court below justly regarded it as void and without force or effect."
    5. Receiver Frank Dyer holds the following properties:
      1. Temple Block - worth $500,000.  This was ordered to be given back.
      2. Gardo House and grounds, worth $50,000.
      3. Historians Office and grounds - worth $20,000.
      4. Tithing Office - worth $50,000.
      5. Tithing Office grounds - worth $25,000.
      6. Church Farm - worth $110,000.
      7. Coal lands in Summit County, Utah - worth $30,000.
      8. 800 shares of stock:  Salt Lake Gas Company.  4,732 shares of stock State of Deseret Telegraph Company.  30,158 sheep, $237,666.15 in cash ($5.6 million in 2010).
      9. Current aggregate property amount:  $750,000 ($17.7 million in 2010)
      10. No donations by way of 'tithing' or voluntary contributions are held by the receiver.
    6. Court findings:
      1. Edmunds-Tucker Law is constitutional.
      2. Congress has power to dissolve the corporation of the Church.
      3. Congress has power to dispose of the property of the Church.
    7. Ruling was not unanimous (6-3):  "We have carefully examined the decree, and do not find anything in it that calls for a reversal. It may perhaps require modification in some matters of detail, and for that purpose only the case is reserved for further consideration."
      1. Dissenting opinion:  Mr. Chief Justice Fuller, Mr. Justice Field, and Mr. Justice Lamar.  They felt that Congress had limitations and could not assume powers not specified by the constitution - this forced forfeiture of property/land with subsequent disposal of same being their example of overstepping constitutional powers.
      2. "... no such power as that involved in the act of Congress under consideration is conferred by the Constitution. ... absolute power should never be conceded as belonging under our system of government to anyone of its departments."
  12. Bassett v. United States
    1. Reference:  137 US 496
    2. Argued:  December 10, 1890.  Decided:  December 22, 1890.
    3. William E. Bassett was charged with polygamy and his wife was forced to testify against him, which led to his convition.
    4. "A husband cannot be examined for or against his wife without her consent, nor a wife for or against her husband without his consent, nor can either, during the marriage or afterwards, be, without the consent of the other, examined as to any communication made by one to the other during the marriage."
    5. Ruling was unanimous (9-0):  "The wife was an incompetent witness as against her husband ... The judgment of the supreme court of the Territory of Utah is reversed, and the case remanded, with instructions to order a new trial."
  13. Cope v. Cope
    1. Reference:  137 US 682
    2. Argued:  December 22, 1890.  Decided:  January 19, 1891.
    3. George A. Cope, son of Thomas Cope by a plural wife, is considered an illegitimate child of Mr. Cope, and is therefore unable to inherit anything from his father's estate.
    4. Ruling was unanimous (9-0):  "Our conclusion is that the appellant, George A. Cope, is entitled to a share in his father's estate, and the decree of the supreme court of the territory must therefore be Reversed."
  14. The Late Corporation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints v. United States
    1. Reference:  150 US 145
    2. Submitted:  October 27, 1893.  Decided:  November 6, 1893.
    3. A Joint Resolution of Congress, signed October 25, 1893, nullifies the position of the confiscation of the personal property of the Church as spelled out in the Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887.  The Supreme Court case Mormon Church v. U.S. ruled on this decision, and now Congress has seen fit to stop the property confiscation and return it to the Church.  This is a ruling on a decree to modify the language of the previous ruling (and law) to agree with the Congressional Joint Resolution.
    4. Ruling was unanimous (9-0):  Ordered accordingly.


  1. Thank you for the information in your blog, I find it fascinating. This type of information is in my opinion most relavent at this time when the very definition of marriage is being challenged.

    For myself I have always wondered where, or upon what basis do governments claim the power to control marriage? It is easy for me to understand why it should be under government regulation, but I haven't so far been able to find original constitutional mention, legislation, or court ruling that describes these powers of government. It seems to me that somewhere along the line a definition of these powers must have come into being, and I find it disturbing that it is not obvious enough for me to at least stumble over it. Rightly, in my mind at least, this should be the beginning point in all our discussions of these issues.

    Can help me out here? Thanks

  2. Anonymous:

    If you have already done this, then disregard.

    Read through the first case on the list (from the link - Reynolds v U.S.). Chief Justice Waite gave the opinion of the court and answered 6 questions. Question #5 was this:

    5. Should the accused be acquitted if he married the second time, because he believed it to be his religious duty?

    To answer this question, history is reviewed. Writings of Madison and Jefferson are brought up in defense of the court's position to define religion, and the State's interference in it (with laws).

    I have also seen where others have quoted from the Federalist Papers (#10 by Madison) to object to the government's interference in marriage.

    I'm not sure I can give you a definitive reference on where or how government believes its involvement in marriage is legal - especially when it is the first marriage (as I believe you're asking about). For marriages #2 and beyond, it appears to originate in England quite some time ago.

    Chief Justice Waite mentions December 8, 1788, as the date when the government here historically was involved in marriage.

    "From that day to this, we think it may safely be said there never has been a time in any State of the Union when polygamy has not been an offence against society, cognizable by the civil courts and punishable with more or less severity."

    My point is that this is the first recognizable instance of a law or statement against a marriage (of any kind) in the U.S. I make that statement only because Chief Justice Waite made it, knowing absolutely that there may be other writings previous to this. The ruling against George Reynolds in this Supreme Court case justified the fact that laws could be made by Congress against marriage (a specific type of marriage, but a marriage just the same) - that is May 1879.

    I'm not sure that helps, but that's what I've got.


  3. Thank you for the response, you're information was indeed helpful.

    I must admit, however, that this is a befuddling issue.

    If I understand correctly from my reading, as a hold over from English law, marrying a second time while presently married was punishable by death in some of (most of?) the early American colonies. Today this would seem harsh, but I would about guess that many things were punishable by death in those times, so I will put in that context.

    In all my consideration of the practice of plural marriage by the early saints I have never been aware of this certain part of the culture in that era. I guess I have always thought that other men were just jealous that some mormon men might be able to have more than one wife, and simply wanted to kill them mostly on that basis alone. But now I have it that they may have been all the more angry because the state was not enforcing its own statutes. Well at least some things in government don't change much.....

    Is there any evidence that Joseph Smith knew that the Lord was asking the saints to practice something "punishable by death"? This would explain a lot about why things were done as they were.

    Another thing I have wondered about is when and how did it come about that marriage licenses were required? Did Joseph and Emma get a license when they married? This is significant because it is government control even before the "first" marriage, and even every subsequent "legal" marriage.

    I hate being "anonymous", but I'm not much of a blogger, and it was the only option convenient to me.

    Thank you, I really do appreciate your approach to these issues.

  4. Anonymous:

    I be completely honest with you: I don't know the answers to these questions. I did a little bit of digging, but I cannot find anything revealing on this subject.

    I know there were laws prohibiting bigamy/polygamy in Illinois around 1833 - punishable by a $1000 fine/2 years in prison (not death). I can only assume other states had similar statutes.

    I know that one of the men in the mob that martyred Joseph and Hyrum carried a powder horn that described Joseph as a polygamist (whether this was inscribed before or after the event I don't know). I find that inscription a bit odd because I thought Joseph's order for the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor press was the final straw that tipped things over in Nauvoo against him.

    I know that several times Joseph was issued a writ of Habeas Corpus by the Nauvoo court system (city charter granted it jurisdiction to do so in Illinois), and this made Joseph appear untouchable by outsiders. So, after Joseph surrendered and was moved to Carthage, the mob attacked thinking they may not have another chance to get to him and exact their form of justice. My point is that why carry a powder horn with the description of Joseph as a polygamist on it? Perhaps the POV of the story I've been told forever has left out many details of history? Was polygamy that big of a deal with the mob? If the inscription on the horn is to be believed, I guess it was. Someone took the time to put it there.

    Here's a link from the Church's web site that talks about the horn a little:

    The link doesn't mention the polygamist part on the horn, but I've seen it - it's there. I thought I had a photo of it, but cannot find it.

    Here's another link to look through, if you haven't seen this already. I cannot personally verify the sources given, however, it does appear to be well researched.

    I believe Joseph began the practice of plural marriages in Ohio (Kirtland), so a study of that time period is certainly in order for further understanding on this issue.

    I do not know the answer about a marriage license for he and Emma.

    Again, I'm not sure any of this is anything you're looking for or that you don't already know (or even assume).


  5. I found a link to a picture with a full description of the horn's inscribed message:

    For what it's worth.