This is an archived article that was published on in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

We need to name Salt Lake City's new federal courthouse. Perhaps it should simply be known as "The United States Courthouse," like many. But if it bears the name of an exemplary Utahn, it should be named after Justice George Sutherland (1862-1942), the only Utahn to serve on the United States Supreme Court.

To date, Sutherland has been Utah's most accomplished attorney, public servant and judge. He was a renowned legal scholar and sage politician, having served in the Utah State Senate, U.S. Congress and U.S. Senate. No past or present Utahn has done more for his state or country, or accomplished more as a lawyer.

George Sutherland was born in England to Mormon converts, and his family arrived in Utah via an 1863 oxcart company. Although he was never baptized into the LDS Church, he thrived at Brigham Young Academy, making lifelong friends with Mormons who, with him, would lead Utah well into the middle of the 20th century.

He put himself through BYA and University of Michigan Law School, then practiced in Provo and Salt Lake City throughout the 1880s and 1890s.

His agile mind complimented modest and kind ways to make him a very successful lawyer and politician. As a senator in Utah's first state Legislature, he wrote the penal and judicial codes, and led efforts to enact workers compensation and child labor laws.

In a single congressional term, he led the passage of the Reclamation Act that allowed western water projects to be engineered and financed by the federal government, opening the West to development.

Two terms in the U.S. Senate earned him a reputation as the brilliant legal scholar with a gentle demeanor.

He advocated for women's voting rights, workers' rights and a more muscular national defense. Sutherland sponsored and campaigned for the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote.

In a 1907 U.S. Senate proceeding, trial lawyer Sutherland mounted a detailed and successful defense of Utah Sen. Reed Smoot, when the Senate considered expelling Smoot due to his religious and alleged polygamous practices.

After leaving the Senate in 1917, he was elected president of the American Bar Association, lectured on foreign affairs at Columbia University, argued cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and represented the United States in a seven-week trial at the Hague.

By the time he was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1922, his character was so clearly fixed in legal and political spheres that his nomination was unanimously confirmed by the Senate the day it was made.

With polished affability and wit, he became a persuasive and powerful justice. He wrote with a quality likened to Abraham Lincoln's, and was best known for his opinions about the separation of powers, constitutional rights, land use zoning and economic regulation. He retired in 1938 as one of the most influential justices in history.

Humble to the end, in his last public address, to the BYU Class of 1941, he did not mention the Supreme Court or his career. Instead, he reminisced about his beloved BYA and Utah in the 1860s and 70s, "when everyone was poor and everyone worked." Most telling, though, was the thoughtful case he made to the graduates to be vigilant caretakers of their character.

George Sutherland died 70 years ago this month. On this anniversary we should recall that our heritage and good sense teach us to honor distinguished and exemplary forefathers. To do so here our congressional delegation should appreciate that the new respect for Sutherland makes him the presumptive choice for this high honor.

Other public servants may deserve such recognition, but none deserve it more.

Andrew M. Morse is president of Snow, Christensen & Martineau, a Salt Lake City law firm.

comments powered by Disqus