Since the arrival of Mormon settlers in “Mesquite Flats” in the 1880s, justice has been an integral part of the community. At first, leaders of the church settled disputes and crimes but by the turn of the century the community wanted a more formal justice system.
Distance was also an issue as Mesquite was then part of Lincoln County and the nearest courthouse was in Pioche, a long 150 miles by horse and wagon. For that reason, residents sought and received permission to have a Justice of the Peace, a Constable and a Deputy Sheriff located in town.
From the beginning the Justice of the Peace was an elected position, often occupied by the most respected residents of the community regardless of their educational background. For that reason, many of the judges were farmers as that was the main activity in Mesquite.
According to “A Look Back at the Judges in Mesquite, Nevada,” a compilation by current justice Ryan W. Toone, the most common issues before early judges were “disputes over flooding other people’s property, misbranding of a calf, using language in a way and
manner that might provoke assault and stealing chickens.”
But all that changed with the opening of I-15 in 1973. Next came the casinos, golf courses and retirees. By 1984 enough growth had occurred to create a city and along with city status came municipal courts.
Using documents from the LDS Church, the Virgin Valley Heritage Museum and other records, Judge Toone has compiled a list of all the judges of Mesquite with tales of their careers which mirror the history of our town. “It started with getting a list of judges. I just wanted to get it all down on paper” said Toone. From there it became a history of judges in Mesquite. Some highlights:
The first Justice of the Peace was Hyrum William Burgess who served from 1903 until 1905. Burgess moved west along with other Mormon pioneers and worked as a blacksmith and hauled freight in California and Utah. He arrived in Mesquite about the same time as his daughter Sarah Ann and her husband James Elmer Hughes arrived in 1896. It is known that after being a judge he acted as attorney for some defendants who were arrested for disturbing the peace. He died in Mesquite in 1924.
James Elmer Hughes followed in his father-in-laws footsteps and became a judge in 1909. But first Hughes started the first store in Mesquite which operated out of a room in their house. Hughes was the judge when Mesquite was added to the newly created Clark County.
Court records show that most of Hughes cases were theft of watermelons and chickens by young men. Hughes was also probably the first “scare them stiff” judge in Clark County. He would give the young men a stern look and tell them if they came before him again “by gad, I’ll burn ya!” The typical punishment in those days was a low fine or a day of work in the fields. Hughes lived out his life in Mesquite dying in 1928.
Another pioneer judge and early Mesquite resident was George Hebon Bowler. Bowler’s parents emigrated from England and the family was well known as singers who performed in the area. Bowler himself played the organ and had a love of music his entire life. Bowler and his wife, Nancy Elizabeth Holt lived in Gunlock for several years working as a schoolteacher in the same school he attended as a child.
By 1910 Bowler had moved to Mesquite and purchased a ranch that today is part of the Oasis Golf Course. He taught music, was a school principal, postmaster and even worked on the railroad.
Bowler was elected judge and served from about 1912 to 1918. Not surprisingly, many of his cases involved theft of melons and chickens which seemed to be something of a crime wave in early Mesquite. According to Justice Toone’s research, Bowler took a hard line against theft handing out $60 fines or 30 days in jail. The crime wave ended. Bowler died in Mesquite in 1962 and is buried in the Mesquite Cemetery.
Our next judge and his wife are the subjects of the pioneer statue located in front of City Hall. William Elias Abbott and his family were sent to Mesquite by Brigham Young when Abbot was only eight years old. He married a local girl, Mary Huntsman Leavitt, daughter of a prominent Mesquite family. The story is that Abbott got permission to wed Mary by helping her father pull a wagon over a tough piece of road. The couple married and had 13 children.
The Abbott’s were committed to the Mesquite community. The plaque below their statue says in part “Her satchel, filled to the brim with mustard plasters, castor oil, chaparral tea sat by her door ready for any emergency.” William Abbot served on numerous boards and commissions including time as chair of the grape board, when grapes were the largest commercial agricultural product in the area.
Abbott served as justice during the 1930s which was a time of depression and hardship in most of the country. He was often called to Las Vegas to preside over weddings as couples were always impressed with the seriousness in which he performed marriages.
Abbott died in 1949 at the age of 79. His obituary was printed in the Reno Evening Gazette with the headline “History of Southern Nevada linked to life of LDS leader W.E. Abbott.”
Abbott’s son, Stephen “Oscar” Abbot followed in his fathers footsteps and served as Justice of the Peace from 1939 to 1940. Oscar Abbott made his reputation as a police officer, who had an uncanny ability to locate stolen cars, a long way from the days of stolen melons being the biggest crime around.
Mary, Oscar’s wife, would man a two-way radio while he was on duty and was credited as being the reason he was so efficient in locating stolen cars and crime in general. According to FBI records, Abbott recovered more stolen cars than any other officer in the nation while serving as a deputy. He passed away in 1987 in Mesquite.
Proving that Mesquite never quite gave up on chicken theft, our next judge William “Lamond” Hughes, presided over a case where two local boys shot a chicken from their vehicle and with the dead chicken in tow broke through a police roadblock before being arrested.
Hughes served as judge during the 1940s and 1950s. He was married to the daughter of a previous judge, George Hebron Hughes, again reflecting on the small size of Mesquite in those days. Hughes was a respected judge and was known not to play favorites even if his own family was involved. His monthly pay was $25. He died in Mesquite in 1957.
Probably our most famous judge for marriages was Joseph LeGrant “JL” Bowler who was born in Gunlock and moved to Mesquite in 1946. Bowler operated a department store for over forty years and was very active serving on numerous boards and commissions and even served as local coroner.
Bowler was judge during the time Las Vegas became the “wedding capitol of the world” famous for celebrity weddings as well as “quickie” divorces. Judge Bowler often helped out in Las Vegas and in a normal day would perform as many as 20 marriages. According to records, Bowler once performed 80 weddings in one day.
His most famous wedding was the marriage of 83 year-old actor James Coburn to 41 year- old Winifred Natzka. Bowler also performed weddings for Eva Gabor and Russ Tamblyn. He once presided over a case of stolen jewelry where the famous nightclub singer Pearl Bailey was the victim.
Bowler was one of our first judges that actually wanted to be a lawyer, but hard work and a large family didn’t allow his dream. His name today is found on the JL Bowler Elementary School in Bunkerville. He passed in 2004 and is buried in Mesquite.
Ron L. Dodd was the judge that presided over the rapid growth of Mesquite. He was appointed judge in 1985 and was twice elected and served until he retired in 2013. During the 1980s and 1990s Mesquite grew from a couple thousand residents to over 15,000 people. With the growth, Mesquite left behind the days of country justice and cases became more numerous and serious.
Today, our judge is Ryan W. Toone, who was elected in 2012. Toone grew up in small towns in Idaho and Utah and went to undergraduate school at Utah State where he was married. Toone recalls that “we moved to the Washington D.C. area for a couple of years and was out there during 9/11 and decided I wanted to work more on a local level.” The family then moved to Minnesota where Toone went to law school and then moved to the Las Vegas area. “We found our way to Mesquite in 2008. We love the town and enjoy raising our kids here,” said Toone.
Toone is also the first Justice of the Peace in Mesquite who is a lawyer. Toone also noted that “Whether they had the training or not, you get the impression from old court records that they cared a lot about the community and did a good job following the law.”
Current Nevada law allows city judges who are not lawyers if they are in smaller rural communities. In larger cities, such as Las Vegas or Reno judges must be lawyers according to Toone.
Unfortunately, the crimes of today are a far cry from those 100 years ago. Instead of chicken theft most crimes in the justice court are for traffic offenses, drugs, drinking under the influence and domestic battery. Like history, our crimes change as the years pass.