Utah Supreme Court Records

This guide is intended to assist researchers in using the record series of the Utah Supreme Court which are available at the Utah State Archives.  Considered are the records generated by the Court’s exercise of original and appellate judicial jurisdiction.  Other functions, such as recording naturalizations, are not included here.

The Court

The Utah Supreme Court was organized in 1850 as part of Congressional organization of the Utah Territory.  The Court acted primarily in an appellate role.  The admission of Utah to Statehood on January 4, 1896, transformed the territorial body into a new Utah State Supreme Court.  Original jurisdiction was given to the Court to issue writs of habeas corpus and other special writs.  Originally organized with three justices, the Court now consists of five justices.

The Supreme Court of Utah is the court of last resort within the state court system.  As with other state supreme courts, it is the final arbiter of the interpretation of state laws.  As the supreme judicial authority in Utah, the history and records of the Utah Supreme Court are at the center of the legal and judicial history of the state.  Researchers who are interested in more information on the history of the Court as an institution may consult the agency history.

The Court System

There are three general classes of courts in the American system.  The first of these is the court of original jurisdiction, or the trial court. These are courts which try cases, determine the facts, and apply the law.  Above trial courts are appellate courts.  These courts review the decisions of the trial court, also known as the lower court, when a party is unsatisfied and appeals. They generally review only the decisions concerning questions of law, as opposed to questions of fact. Above the appellate courts is the court of last resort.  In Utah, as with most but not all states, the name of this final court is the Supreme Court.  

The “Law-Making” Role of the Court

When the Utah Supreme Court makes a decision and explains that decision in an opinion, it sets a precedent.  Once set, precedents are guides to future decisions of the Supreme Court, but they are also interpretations of law which are binding upon the lower courts—a principle known as stare decisis, or “let the decision stand.”  Lower courts are bound to follow the principles of law declared by the Supreme Court, or any other appellate court over them.  The decisions of the Court thus constitute “law” to the lower courts and are the definitive interpretations of state statutes and constitutional provisions.

The decisions of the Court are important guideposts to the legal rights, privileges, duties, responsibilities, and immunities of Utah citizens and others in Utah.  From its vantage point as the premier judicial authority in the state, the Court can and does shape the lives of the people of Utah.  The supporting documents in a case file, including briefs, abstracts, and others help to elaborate on the decisions of the Court, not by altering them but by filling in the context within which a decision was made.

Case Number Organization of Records

Most records produced by the Court are arranged according to case number.  When a case is filed with the Court, a case number is assigned.  A case file is also opened which should include the pleadings, or legal papers, filed in the case.  Some documents are segregated by the Court.  For instance, there are two series which contain only Abstracts and Briefs, another contains only the opinions filed by the justices, and so on.  To locate any court record, a case number is essential.

Locating a Case Number

If the title of a case and year of decision are known, a researcher may look through the volumes of the Utah Reports (Series 1481) for the year in which the decision was delivered.  In the front of each volume of the reporter will be a list of cases reported.  By browsing this list, a researcher may determine whether or not a case is in the particular volume and the page on which it starts if it is in that volume.  Beginning with volume 10 of the Utah Reports, the reporter lists the case number as part of the headnote for each case reported. Researchers should be aware, however, that some omissions have been found from the “Table of Cases Reported,” a technical name for an alphabetical table of contents in this case, at the front of the Utah Reports.

There are a variety of resources available to researchers that will provide the case numbers needed to access Supreme Court case files.  These would include the Minute Books kept by the court between 1889 and 1984 (Series 25964) as well as the Register of Action Books kept between 1861 and 1985 (Series 25937).

Once a case number has been found, the key has been opened to locating records in all of the Supreme Court series in the Archives.

A Note on Case Files

Beginning in 1907, the Court was required to remit appeals back to the lower court from which they came (L. 1907, ch. 161). Documents from the lower courts should, thus, be sought in the records of the lower courts, rather than in the records of the Supreme Court, even though the Supreme Court would have reviewed the lower court’s records.

Reading Case Titles

Case titles adhere to certain standards.  A brief summary of those is given here.

In an original proceeding, the name of the plaintiff is listed first, followed by the name of the defendant.  For instance, in Smith v. Jones, Smith is the plaintiff, and Jones is the defendant.  The plaintiff is the party who files the suit alleging that the defendant did something wrong.  In a criminal case, the plaintiff is the state.  The state may appear in the title of the case as “Utah,” “The People,” “The People of the Territory of Utah,” or similar.  

In Utah, though not in many other jurisdictions, the order that the parties appeared in the lower court is the order in which they appear for the title of the Supreme Court case.  The case title in the appellate court will often refer to one party as the appellant and one as the respondent.  The appellant appealed the case and brought it before the Court to review, usually the loser in the lower court.  The respondent, usually the winner in the lower court, must answer the appeal and argue against any change in the lower court’s ruling.

Multiple parties may be involved on one or both sides of a dispute.  In the example above, John Doe and Steve Smith sue Jack Green and Sue Jones.  The title, however, generally does not list all parties when there are multiple parties on one side or the other.  While one might expect the title to appear as Doe and Smith v. Green and Jones, if usually will not.  It will usually appear as Doe, et al. V. Green, et al.  The “et al.” means “and others.”  This indicates that there are additional parties which are not listed in the case title.

When browsing the Utah Reports volumes, the table of cases reported will not show “et al.” or any party’s name other than the first.  In the example just discussed, the reporter’s table of cases reported will say “Doe v. Green.”

There are additional special complications which appear from time to time in case titles which are beyond the scope of this guide.

Reading Reporter Citations

Formal citations to legal reporters have three parts, including the title of the case, the reporter reference, and the date. In order to locate information in the reporter, you must have either the reporter reference or the title and date.  The reporter reference will directly indicate the volume and first page number of the decision. 

Full citations to this material may fit any of the following forms:

People v. Moroni Green, 1 Utah 13 (1855)

This citation tells us that the Utah Supreme Court decided a case entitled People v. Moroni Green in 1855.  The text of this decision may be found in volume 1 of the 1st series of the Utah Reporter, beginning on page 13.

Salt Lake City v. Utah Lake Farmers Association, 4 Utah.2d 14 (1955).

The 1955 decision cited here may be found beginning on page 14 of volume 4 of the second series of Utah Reports.

State of Utah v. Johnny Frank Sosa, 598 P.2d 342 (1979).

This 1979 case was reported in the 598th volume of the second series of the Pacific Reporter.  To locate this case, the researcher will need to find the volume of the Utah Reporter which includes cases from volume 598 of the Pacific Reporter.  This case may be found in the Utah Reports volume labeled “P.2d 590-598.”

Page Last Updated May 21, 2009.