Joseph Simeon (J. S.) Utley (1876–1943)
J. S. Utley was an influential attorney and Democratic officeholder in the first half of the twentieth century.
Joseph Simeon (J. S.) Utley was born on October 18, 1876, on a farm in Greenbrier (Faulkner County) to Francis David Utley and Amanda Melvina Snow Utley. He received his early education in the county’s rural schools, and beginning in 1894, he taught in the county schools. In 1897, he enrolled at Hendrix College in Conway (Faulkner County), from which he would receive a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1906. While he pursued his own education, he also served as the principal of the public school in Ashdown (Little River County) from 1902 to 1905. Following his graduation from Hendrix (to which he maintained close ties, later serving as the president of the college’s alumni association), Utley taught history and French at Clary Training School from 1906 to 1908. At the same time, he was preparing for a career in the law, and he was admitted to the Arkansas Bar in Benton (Saline County) in 1907. He started his own private law practice that same year, establishing a firm that became Cooper and Utley.
He married Vivian Rockwood Williams in 1903. The couple had a son and two daughters.
Not long after he began practicing law, Utley was appointed prosecuting attorney for Hot Spring, Saline, and Grant counties in 1910 and served in that position until late 1914. He quickly earned a reputation as a tough prosecutor, compiling an impressive conviction record. In 1915, the young Democrat was encouraged to enter the race to fill the vacant attorney general’s office, but in the end he opted instead to run for the Arkansas Senate the following year, while Wallace Davis, the son of former Governor Jeff Davis, won the attorney general’s race.
Utley won election to the state Senate in 1916. He chaired the Judiciary Committee, where he introduced legislation that would have allowed for a verdict to be rendered in civil cases if nine of the twelve jurors agreed. He also served on the Apportionment Committee. He won reelection in 1918 before setting his sights on the attorney general’s office.
In 1920, Utley was elected attorney general of the state of Arkansas, a job he would hold until 1925. As attorney general, Utley sought greater transparency in government, such as enforcing laws that required improvement districts to publish annual reports, but those efforts took a back seat to the biggest issue of his term, the cases resulting from the 1919 Elaine Massacre that led to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Moore v. Dempsey. While the massacre itself, as well as the trials, predated Utley’s term in office, he played no small role in the Supreme Court case. Not only did the state’s brief to the Supreme Court carry his signature, but at a crucial earlier stage in the appeals process, he had responded to the request for the writ of habeas corpus by demurring to the statement of facts presented by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). This bound the Court to accept the NAACP’s version of events as fact, a reality that did much to buttress the organization’s argument in a case that ultimately freed the Elaine defendants.
Utley served as chairman of the state central committee of the state Democratic Party from 1925 to 1929. In that role, in 1927, he wrote a letter to the New York Times asserting the dominance of the Democratic Party in Arkansas while also announcing that the state’s Democratic Party was proudly supporting Senator Joseph Robinson for the 1928 presidential nomination.
However, Robinson later demurred, sending Utley a letter saying that he would not be a candidate. But at the party’s 1928 convention in Houston, Texas, during which New York governor Al Smith was nominated for president, Senator Robinson was nominated as vice president in an effort to balance the ticket. Robinson’s selection represented a sizable challenge for chairman Utley, who was caught in the middle of a major divide within the party as he sought to marshal support for Robinson in a state where Al Smith’s Catholicism collided with a strong anti-Catholic sentiment. But in November, the Smith-Robinson ticket won the state with just over sixty percent of the vote, even though the pair won only 40.8 percent nationwide. Following the election, Utley left his post as chair of the party and returned to private law practice.
In June 1935, Utley returned to public service when Governor Junius M. Futrell appointed him as a judge of the third division of Pulaski County Circuit Court. It was there that he spent his final days, presiding over a range of cases, including a controversial one that kept the Communist Party off the 1940 ballot, upholding a lower court ruling that the party’s commitment to a violent overthrow of the United States overrode its first amendment rights.
After a year of failing health, Utley died on December 13, 1943, in Little Rock (Pulaski County), his wife having died the previous December.
For additional information:
Herndon, Dallas Tabor. Centennial History of Arkansas. 3 vols. Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1922.
Pruden, William H., III. “Cracking Open the Door: Moore v. Dempsey and the Fight for Justice.” In The Elaine Massacre and Arkansas: A Century of Atrocity and Resistance, 1819–1919, edited by Guy Lancaster. Little Rock: Butler Center Books, 2018.
Utley Family Papers. Arkansas State Archives, Little Rock, Arkansas. Finding aid online at https://digitalheritage.arkansas.gov/finding-aids/87/ (accessed November 19, 2020).
William H. Pruden III
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