Mormon History

United States versus the Mormon Church - 1874

Poland Act of 1874

Prosecution for the murders at Mountain Meadows became possible only when, in 1874, Congress passed the Poland Act.  The Act sought to eliminate the nearly total control the Mormon Church had over Utah's justice system.  The Poland Act redefined the jurisdiction of Utah courts, restricting the formerly powerful probate courts, which had taken no action concerning the 1857 massacre, to their traditional jurisdiction.  The Act also eliminated the territorial marshal and attorney, giving their duties to a U. S. marshal and U. S. attorney.  Finally, the Act opened up Utah juries to non-Mormons. 

The first grand jury called under the new law, in September 1874, indicted Lee, Dame, Haight, Higbee, Klingensmith, Stewart, and three other men for the deaths of members of the Fancher Party at Mountain Meadows in 1857.

From the Utah History Research Center:
Each Utah county had a probate court presided over by an elected judge. No federal circuit court was ever established in Utah or with jurisdiction over Utah. Many litigants, especially Mormons, took their cases to the probate court rather than before the federally appointed judge of the district court. The effect was to displace the federally appointed courts with a system of local control. Congress reacted by placing the judiciary firmly under federal control. The Poland Act of 1874 (18 Stat. 253) restricted the probate courts to matters of estates and guardianship, removing all civil, chancery, and criminal jurisdiction. It gave the district courts exclusive jurisdiction for all suits over $300, and it abolished the local offices of the territorial marshal and territorial attorney.

Text of the Poland Act, as proposed:

Mr. POLAND, from the Committee on the Judiciary, which was authorized to report it at any time, reported back, with amendments, House bill No. 3097 in relation to courts and judicial officers in the Territory of Utah.

          The bill, as proposed to be amended, was read, as follows:

          Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That it shall be "the duty of the United States marshal of the Territory of Utah, in person or by deputy, to attend all sessions of the supreme and district courts in said Territory, and to serve and execute all process and writs issued out of, and all orders, judgments, and decrees made by said courts, or by any judge thereof, unless said court or judge shall otherwise order in any particular case. All process, writs, or other papers left with said marshal, or either of his deputies, shall be. served without delay, and in the order in which they are received, upon payment or tender of his legal fees therefore; and it shall be unlawful for said marshal to demand or receive mileage for any greater distance than the actual distance by the usual routes from the place of service or execution of process, writ, or other paper, to the place of return of the same, except that when it shall be necessary to convey any person arrested by legal authority out of the county in which he is arrested, said marshal shall be entitled to mileage for the whole distance necessarily traveled in delivering the person so arrested before the court or officer ordering such arrest. Said marshal is hereby authorized to appoint as many deputies as may be necessary, each of whom shall have authority, in the name of said marshal, to perform any act with like effect and in like manner as said marshal; and the marshal shall be liable for all official acts of such deputies as if done by himself. Such appointment shall not be complete until he shall give bond to said marshal, with sureties, to be by him, approved, in the penal sum of $10,000, conditioned for the faithful discharge of his duties; and he shall also take, and subscribe the same oath prescribed by law to be taken by said marshal; and said appointment, bond, and oath shall be filed and remain in the office of the clerk of the supreme court of said territory. In. actions brought against said marshal for the misfeasance or non-fiancé of any deputy. It shall be lawful for the plaintiff, at his option, to join the said deputy and the sureties on his bond with said marshal and his sureties.   Any processes, either civil or .criminal, returnable to the supreme or district courts may be served in any county by the sheriff thereof or his legal deputy,  and they may also serve any other processes which may be authorized by act of the territorial Legislature.

          SEC. 2. That it shall be the duty of the United States attorney in said Territory, in person or by an assistant, to attend all the courts of record having jurisdiction of offenses as well under the laws of said Territory as of the United States, and perform the duties of prosecuting officer in all criminal cases arising in said courts; and be is hereby authorized to appoint as many assistants as may be necessary, each of whom shall subscribe the same oath as is prescribed by law for said United States attorney; and the said appointment and oath shall be filed and remain the office of the clerk of the supreme court of said Territory. The United States attorney shall be entitled to the same fees for services rendered by said assistants as he would be entitled to for the same services if rendered by himself. The territorial Legislature may provide for the election of a; prosecuting attorney in any county; and such attorney, if authorized so to do by such Legislature, may commence prosecutions for offenses under the laws of the Territory within such county, and if such prosecution is carried to the district court by recognizance or appeal, or otherwise, may aid in conducting the prosecution in such court.  And the costs and expenses of all prosecutions for offenses against any law of the territorial Legislature shall be paid out of the treasury of the Territory.  

          SEC. 3. That there shall be held in each year two terms of the supreme court of said Territory, and four terms of each district court, at such times as the governor of the Territory may by Proclamation fix. The district courts shall have exclusive original jurisdiction in all suits or proceedings in chancery, and in all actions at law in which the sum or value of the thing in controversy shall be $300 or upward, and in all controversies where the title, possession, or boundaries of land, or mines or mining claims shall be in dispute, whatever their value, except in actions for forcible entry or forcible or unlawful detainer; and they shall have jurisdiction in suits for divorce. When a bill is filed by a woman to declare marriage or pretended marriage void, on account of a previous subsisting marriage of the defendant to another woman, the court, or judge thereof may grant such reasonable sum for alimony and counsel fees as the circumstances of the case will justify; and may likewise, by final decree, make such allowance for the maintenance of the complainant and her children by the defendant as may be just and reasonable. .And whenever, in any proceeding for divorce, or in any civil cause, or in any criminal prosecution, it is necessary to prove the existence of the marriage relation between two persons, it shall not be necessary to prove the same by the production of any record or certificate of the marriage, but evidence of cohabitation between the parties as husband and wife, and the acts, conduct, declarations, and admissions of the parties shall be admissible, and the marriage may be established like any question of fact.  Probate courts, in their respective counties, shall have jurisdiction in the settlement of the estates of decedents, and in matters of guardianship and other like matters; but otherwise they shall have no civil, chancery, or criminal jurisdiction whatever; they shall have jurisdiction of suits of divorce for statutory causes concurrently with the district courts; but any defendant in a suit for divorce, commenced in a probate court shall be entitled, after appearance and before plea or answer, to have said snit removed to the district court having jurisdiction, when said suit shall proceed in like manner as if originally commenced in said district court. All judgments and decrees heretofore rendered by the probate courts which have been executed, and the time to appeal from which has by the existing laws of said Territory expired, are hereby validated and confirmed. The jurisdiction heretofore conferred upon justices of the peace by the organic act of said Territory is extended to all cases where the debt or sum claimed shall be less· than $300. From all final judgments of justices of the peace an appeal shall be allowed to the district courts of their respective districts, in the same manner as is now provided by the laws of said Territory for appeals to the probate courts; and from the judgments of the probate courts an appeal shall lie to the district court of the district embracing the county in which such probate court is held in such cases and in such manner as the, supreme court of said Territory may; by general rules framed for that purpose, specify and designate, and such appeal shall vacate the judgment appealed from, and the case shall be tried de novo in the appellate court.  Appeals may be taken from both justices and probate courts to the district court of their respective districts in cases where judgments have been heretofore rendered and remain unexecuted; but this provision shall not enlarge the time for taking an appeal beyond the periods now allowed by the existing laws of said Territory for taking appeals. Whenever the condition of the business in the district court of any district is such that the judge of the district is unable to do the same, he may request the judge of either of the other districts to assist him, and, upon such request made; the judge so requested may hold the whole or part of any term, or any branch thereof, and his acts as such judge shall be of equal force as if he were duly assigned to hold the courts in such district.

          SEC. 4. That within sixty days after the passage of this act, and in the month of January annually thereafter, the clerk of the district court in each judicial district, and the judge of probate of the county in which the district court is next to be held, shall prepare a jury-list from which grand and petit jurors shall be drawn, to serve in the district courts of such district, until a new list shall be made us herein provided. Said clerk and probate judge shall alternately select the name of a male citizen of the United States who has resided in the district for the period of six months next preceding, and who can read and write in the English language; and as selected, the name and residence of each shall be entered upon the list, until the same shall contain two hundred names, when the same shall be duly certified by such clerk and probate judge; and the same shall be filed in the office of the clerk of such district court, and a duplicate copy shall be made and certified by such officers, and filed in the office of said probate judge. Whenever a grand or petit jury is to be drawn to serve at any term of a district court, the judge of such district shall give public notice of the time and place of the drawing of such jury, which shall be at least twelve days before commencement of such term; and on the day and at the place thus fixed, the judge of such district shall hold an open session of his court , and shall preside at the drawing of such jury; and the clerk of such court shall write the name of each person on the jury-lists returned and filled in his office upon a separate slip of paper, as nearly as practicable of the same size and form, and all such slips shall, by the clerk in open court, be placed in a covered box, and thoroughly mixed and mingled; and thereupon the United States marshal, or his deputy, shall proceed to fairly draw by lot from said box such number of names as may have previously been directed by said judge; and if both a grand and a petit jury are to be drawn, the grand jury shall be drawn first; and when the drawing shall have been Concluded, the clerk of the district court shall issue a venire to the marshal or his deputy, directing him to summon the persons so drawn, and the same shall be duly served on each of the persons so drawn at least seven days before the commencement of the term at which they are to serve; and the jurors so drawn and summoned shall constitute the regular grand and petit juries for the term for all cases. And the names thus drawn from the box by the clerk shall not be returned to or again placed in said box until a new jury-list shall be made. If during any term or the district court any additional grand or petit jurors shall be necessary, the same shall be drawn from said box by the United States marshal in open court; but if the attendance of those drawn cannot be obtained in a reasonable time, other names may be drawn in the same manner.  Each party, whether in civil or criminal cases, shall be allowed three peremptory challenges; and in the trial of any prosecution for adultery, bigamy, or polygamy, it shall be a good cause of principal challenge to any juror that he practices polygamy, or that he believes in the rightfulness of the same. In criminal cases, the court, and not the jury, shall pronounce the punishment under the limitation prescribed by law.  The grand jury must inquire into the case of every person imprisoned within the district on a criminal charge and not indicted; into the condition and management of the public prisons within the district; and into the willful and corrupt misconduct in office of public officer’s of every description within the district; and they are also entitled to free access, at all reasonable times, to the public prisons, and to the examination, without charge, of all public records within the district.

          SEC. 5. That there shall be appointed by the governor of said Territory one or more notaries public for each organized county, whose term of office shall be two years and until their successors shall be appointed and qualified . The act of the Legislative Assembly of the Territory of Utah entitled "An act concerning notaries public," approved January, 17, 1866, is hereby approved, except  the first section thereof, which is hereby disapproved: Provided, That wherever in said act the words “probate judge" or "clerk of the probate court" are used, the words “secretary of the Territory" shall be substituted.

          SEC. 6. That the supreme court of said Territory is hereby authorized to appoint commissioners of said court, who shall have and exercise all the duties of commis­sioners of the circuit courts of the United States, and to take acknowledgments of bail, &c.; and, in addition, they shall have the same authority as examining and committing magistrates in all cases arising under the laws of said Territory as is now possessed by justices of the peace in said Territory.

          SEC. 7. That the common law of England, as the same is defined and modified by the courts of last resort in those States of the United States where the common law prevails, shall be the rule of decision in all the courts of said Territory so far as it is not repugnant to or inconsistent with the Constitution and laws of the United States and the existing statutes of Raid territory.

          SEC. 8 . That the act of the territorial Legislature of the Territory of Utah entitled "An act III relation to marshals and attorneys," approved March 3, 1852, and all laws of said Territory inconsistent with the provisions of this act, ate hereby disapproved. The act of the Congress of the United States entitled "An act to regulate the fees and costs to be allowed clerks, marshals, and attorneys of the circuit and district courts of the United States, and for other purposes,” approved February 26, 1853, is extended over and shall apply to the fees of like officers in said Territory of Utah.