There is a little-noted crossroads point in the heart of downtown Salt Lake City. A small corner of our urban landscape, it has shaped the lives of virtually every resident of Utah for more than one hundred years. In the process it has helped forge the very definition of what it means to be an American.
In the early months of 2014, the solid and unassuming Frank E. Moss Federal Courthouse is entering its final days. Soon an ultra-modern, monolithic replacement will open its doors, and a building that links 21st Century Utah to its embattled years as a territory will come to an end.
KUED chronicles the history, issues, and human drama forged in Utah’s federal courts in Courthouse, a documentary profiling pivotal cases, surprising scandals, and powerful personalities that filled twelve decades of service for the Moss Courthouse. Courthouse debuts Tuesday, April 29th at 8:00 p.m. on KUED.
“In a very real sense the story of this one building is a stunning telling of the evolution of Utah,” says KUED Director of Production Ken Verdoia. “From early days in the first decade of the 20th Century, the Moss Courthouse is center stage for arguing and deciding cases that shape our lives to this very day.”
To better understand the present, Courthouse returns viewers to the often-forgotten, but critical, territorial years from 1850-1896 when the federal court in Utah played a controversial role. A string of landmark cases often cast members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as targets of prosecution by federal judges sent to Utah with an agenda to reduce the scope and influence of the Church as a precondition for statehood.
“It is very fair to say Mormons felt the 19th Century federal courts were used to bludgeon the people and their church into submission on a wide array of issues,” says Verdoia, who serves as the program’s producer, writer and narrator. “At the same time, non-Mormons in the Utah Territory felt the federal court was their only hope to balance society, politics, and the economy.”
When statehood finally arrived in 1896, the struggle for control of the federal court continued. No part of the battle was more pitched than where a new federally-funded courthouse would be located. Mormon Church authorities lobbied for the new construction to be in close proximity to Temple Square. But non-Mormon business interests argued behind the scenes to create a new “heart” for Salt Lake City, separate and distinct from Church influence.
In the end, the prominent Walker family sold a choice parcel on Main Street and 350 South to the federal government for one silver dollar. Non-Mormon business entrepreneurs, such as mining and real estate tycoon Samuel Newhouse, soon purchased all of the adjoining lands to build a new financial district as the “power center” for a new Utah.
The vision is still evident to this day in downtown Salt Lake City, with the Boston and Newhouse Buildings, Utah’s first steel skeleton “skyscrapers,” still standing across the street from the federal courthouse. Just behind them is the Salt Lake Mining Exchange, another Samuel Newhouse vision for moving affairs from theocratic to business control.
“Along the way we meet some of the most influential, and perhaps under-appreciated, figures who shape our current sense of justice and rights,” says Verdoia. “Courageous figures like the federal judge who ruled against Newhouse and prevailing economic interests to protect the public from air pollution…in 1908.”
The Courthouse storyline is also populated with scandal, as one judge resigned due to a vicious whispering campaign alleging an affair with the cleaning lady of his court, and another judge barely survived a widow emptying her handgun into him as he sat on the bench in the 1920s. For more than 50 years Mormons were informally barred from serving as federal judges. When the barrier was broken, two sitting judges refused to speak to each other or walk in the same stairwell, so deep was their dislike for each other.
“But, while those are intriguing ‘court secrets’ the real message of Courthouse is the abiding principle of the integrity of a process that allows us to build a better understanding of what it means to be an American,” says Verdoia. “Our nation is a remarkable product of everything that has gone before, with an unshakeable faith that our discovery is never at an end.”
Courthouse is funded by: Members of the Federal Bar through a grant from the Bar and Bench Fund of the United States District Court for the District of Utah; Jones, Waldo, Holbrook & McDonough, P.C.; Parr Brown Gee & Loveless; Parsons Behle & Latimer; Ray Quinney & Nebeker; Snell & Wilmer; Snow, Christensen & Martineau; Stoel Rives; Van Cott, Bagley, Cornwall & McCarthy; Workman Nydegger; Historical Society of the 10th Judicial Circuit.