On February 24, 1856, Brigham Young delivered a blistering attack on lawyers and law courts. He began his denunciation by describing the performance of a lawyer that he had observed the day before. â€œ[H]e was so serious, so religious, so pious, and so honest, that he appealed to high heaven to witness his honesty before the jury,â€ said Young, but â€œwhen he had induced the jury to believe that he was honest, he stood there and misrepresented the merits of the case for half an hour at a stretch, in regular lawyer style.â€ Such conduct, he insisted, was particularly objectionable when done by Mormon lawyers at the instigation of Mormon clients. â€œDoes the Lord love youâ€™re your conduct when you drag each other before the ungodly? . . . Do you think He has fellowship with your conduct in such things? No, you do not.â€ However, while Youngâ€™s remarks were â€œsevere upon the lawyersâ€ (and their clients), he spent the bulk of the sermon castigating the spectators at the trial.
It is a shame for men to be found loafing about in such places, where there is contention and quarrelling, and every stratagem that can be used to deceive juries and witnesses, and lying before them with all the grace and sanctity of a Saint, pretending to be one. Such a place is darker to me than midnight darkness.
In part, he was appalled at the idleness of the spectators. Such men, he said, ought to be â€œraising grain, potatoes, and other articles of food, instead of following after courts and the nonsense, wickedness, and lying associated with them.â€ It was not simply the waste of time, however, that attracted Youngâ€™s wrath. Rather, he thought that the spectacle itself was degrading. â€œElders of Israel . . . throng to such a place, and that too when no spirit reigns there but the devilâ€™s spirit, . . . [Y]ou can get nothing from that den but the principles of hell.â€ Even more colorfully, he called the show of litigation â€œ[t]he fog, the froth, and spawn of hell, and they [i.e. the spectators] feast upon it.â€
Youngâ€™s attack on litigation is reminiscent of puritanical sermons against the theater over the centuries. While Young himself was not opposed to theatricals, his attack on litigation shares with the religious denunciation of theaters a basic concern for the moral consequences of watching sin and wickedness as entertainment. In Youngâ€™s view, litigation was a battle of wits between amoral lawyers, an exciting spectacle but ultimately a degrading one. It was not simply the contentiousness of litigation or the dishonesty of the lawyers themselves that was objectionable. It was the moral impact on the community of placing such a spectacle at the center of civic life. Seen in these terms, the move to bring litigation within the church was a move to transform the public meaning of dispute resolution. To be sure, prior to the arrival of the first non-Mormon federal appointees to the Utah Territorial bench, the Mormons had their own muted version of court day. In 1852, shortly after the Territory of Utah was organized, Zerubabbel Snow, a Mormon attorney who had been appointed Chief Justice of the new Territorial Supreme Court, road circuit through the far-flung settlements inaugurating the first district courts. However, he did not enter town as the head of a judicial entourage with lawyers in tow. Rather, he came as a small part of a much larger party led by Brigham Young, who spoke to the citizens as territorial Governor and â€“ far more importantly from the point of view of the settlers â€“ preached to them as living prophet and leader of their church. In this theo-political pageant Justice Snow was a decidedly bit player.
In place of the secular ritual of court day, the Church courts offered their own set of public symbols. In at least some cases, the adjudication was open to the public, and church trials were sometimes announced in advance in local newspapers. While parties occasionally retained attorneys to represent them before a High Council â€“ particularly when resort to the church court was one move in protracted litigation spanning both secular and ecclesiastical tribunals â€“ generally speaking lawyers were excluded from the proceedings. In accordance with rules laid down by Joseph Smith, however, an equal number of High Councilors were assigned to speak on either side of a case when the council deliberated. The rule was less of a surrogate for representation than a device to insure the appearance (and hopefully the reality) of even-handed deliberation. Likewise, the absence of technical rules of evidence was supposed to insure that church courts could reach the truth of the matter. In contrast, said Young, â€œjuries are liable to be deceived.â€ Perhaps most dramatically, decisions by church courts frequently required erring parties to publicly confess their sins before their congregation. Likewise quarrelling members were often required to engage in acts of public reconciliation. In short, ecclesiastical courts transformed adjudication from a spectacle of amoral attorneys engaged in a battle of wits into an essentially Christian drama of sin, confession, reconciliation, and public redemption. As the minutes of one early meeting put it, â€œAll differences settled & hearts of all run together in love.â€