As Nelson’s longtime right-hand man, Oaks brings a keen legal mind to Mormonism’s new Big Three

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Russell M. Nelson looks on as Dallin H. Oaks addresses members of the media at a news conference in the lobby of the Church Office Building in Salt Lake City, Tuesday, Jan.16, 2018. Nelson was named the 17th president of the nearly 16 million-member Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

For nearly 34 years, Dallin H. Oaks has been at Russell M. Nelson’s side — in solemn meetings at the Salt Lake Temple, during intense policy discussions at LDS Church headquarters and for public appearances in Mormon General Conferences.

There they always were. The lawyer and the doctor. The judge and the surgeon. The apostle and the ... apostle.

That close association will continue after Nelson, newly ordained and set apart by his fellow apostles as the 17th president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, picked his longtime colleague to be his first counselor in the governing First Presidency (Henry B. Eyring is second counselor).

Nelson, who became a renowned heart surgeon, and Oaks, a former Utah Supreme Court justice, even were called to the Mormon apostleship on the same day in 1984, but the former was ordained about a month earlier.

As such, the 85-year-old Oaks, a former president of LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University and next in line to succeed the 93-year-old Nelson, is well prepared after having served more than three decades in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

“The interesting thing about Oaks is that he comes from an academic [legal] background,” said LDS historian Matthew Bowman, author of “The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith.” “That has made him sort of the point man in church leadership for complex issues of the law.

“Particularly, he is probably [the leadership’s] most academic thinker about religion and its place in public life,” added Bowman, a history professor at Arkansas’ Henderson State University.

Indeed, unlike Nelson’s immediate predecessors, Thomas S. Monson and Gordon B. Hinckley, Oaks has not spent the bulk of his working life within the Mormon hierarchy. Before his apostolic appointment, Oaks already had built a legacy and reputation as a professor, attorney and jurist possessed of a keen, deliberative legal mind.

From human laws to God’s laws

He clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren in 1957-58 and practiced law in Illinois before accepting a professorship at the University of Chicago Law School in 1961. In 1969, while heading the school’s discipline committee as it addressed a campus sit-in, Oaks was assaulted twice.

He became president of BYU in Provo in 1971, overseeing creation of the J. Reuben Clark Law School. He left BYU in 1980 to join the Utah Supreme Court, where he served as a justice for four years before becoming an apostle.

Oaks penned respected scholarly pieces on Fourth Amendment and related issues regarding evidence exclusion. He even delved into whether LDS founder Joseph Smith’s 1844 order to destroy the press of the anti-Mormon Nauvoo Expositor was legal.

Oaks opined that while destruction of the printing press itself was illegal, it probably fell within the laws of the time to declare the newspaper’s attacks on Smith as “libelous” and therefore close it down as a “public nuisance.” Either way, the move set the stage for Smith’s assassination three weeks later.

While serving on Utah’s high court, Oaks crafted several major opinions. In one case (KUTV v. Conder) he wrote a ruling that overturned a lower court’s order barring the news media from using the term “Sugarhouse Rapist” or disclosing past convictions of a defendant during a criminal trial.

In another headline-grabbing case (Wells vs. Children’s Aid Society of Utah) Oaks wrote the opinion upholding as constitutional a statute that terminated parental rights of unwed fathers. That case involved a father of an adopted newborn who had failed to file paternity papers within statutory time limits.

Former Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Gordon R. Hall remembered Oaks both as “a first-class member of our court and a real asset” as well as a “good friend.”

“He was very knowledgeable of the law,” said Hall, now retired at age 91, “as well as an all-around gentleman with a proper judicial demeanor.”

And if his former bench buddy someday rises to the LDS Church’s presidential chair, Hall said, Oaks would wear the prophetic mantle well.

“He would handle that position in a very appropriate manner,” Hall said. “His experience in other walks of life has been exemplary. He knows what’s happening, and how to handle matters and people as they arise.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dallin H. Oaks and Russell M. Nelson at a news conference in the lobby of the Church Office Building in Salt Lake City, Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018. Nelson was named the 17th president of the nearly 16 million-member Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Oaks was named first counselor in the First Presidency.

Fighting for religious liberty

A frequent voice for protecting the rights of religions and their leaders to speak out on moral and political issues, Oaks twice testified as an LDS Church representative before Congress — a rare thing for the faith — in support of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The U.S. Supreme Court declared the law unconstitutional in 1997, but Oaks has continued to vocally defend religious speech in the public forum. In recognition of his lifetime devotion to that cause, he received the Canterbury Medal from the Becket Fund for Religious Freedom in 2013.

In fact, U.S. President Donald Trump proclaimed Tuesday, coincidentally the day of Oaks’ elevation to the LDS First Presidency, as Religious Freedom Day.

Mormon historian Richard Bushman — who wrote “Rough Stone Rolling,” an acclaimed biography of the first LDS Church prophet, Joseph Smith — predicted that Oaks’ defense of religious expression would be a hallmark of his growing role in Mormon leadership — along with continued conservative views against same-sex marriage.

“This is sky-blue speculation, but he is a man of logic,” said Bushman, who has interacted with Oaks for decades, both in writing and speaking about Mormon history and beliefs.

“He’s not one for telling stories like President Monson was, nor [is he] known for incidents of kindness — not that he isn’t kind himself; he is a very generous, kind man,” Bushman said. “But he would lay down things in a very systematic fashion; not necessarily doctrine, but just good common-sense principles.”

Oaks’ approach, is not unlike a lawyer arguing a case or a judge shaping a legal opinion.

If Oaks ever became the church’s president, Bushman suspects, he would “seek help for making large decisions” from his advisers. However, once convinced, “he would be fairly bold . . . in seeking revelation.”

Surprising stances

Bowman, meanwhile, sees a potential Oaks presidency focused on “promoting clarity on murky [doctrinal] issues, such as gender in the priesthood, LGBTQ issues, and staking out a strong position for the church in the public sphere” on such matters.

However, Oaks conservatism is no knee-jerk response. During a BYU-Hawaii commencement speech in March 2017, he chided the White House, without mentioning Trump by name.

Along with the global woes of climate change, violence, immoralities and other evils, Oaks stated, “We are even challenged by the politics of conflict and the uncertainties sponsored by the aggressive new presidential administration in the world’s most powerful nation.”

Bowman views that as evidence of an Oaks who “is a careful thinker on these sorts of things.”

He also recalled a recent speech in which Oaks — while defending continuation of the all-male priesthood — spoke glowingly of the potential for Mormon women serving that priesthood as advisers and administrators.

While Oaks has been “vociferous in his defense of the church’s position on gay marriage. . . he also criticized Kim Davis, the [Kentucky county clerk] who refused [in 2015] to issue same-sex marriage licenses after the courts had ordered her to do so,” Bowman pointed out. “He believes religious people need to abide by the procedures of American democracy, even if they go against . . . what they might prefer.”

For instance, Oaks also proved instrumental in pushing a landmark compromise through the Utah Legislature in 2015 that guaranteed employment and housing protections for LGBTQ individuals while safeguarding some religious liberties.

Oaks’ conference addresses generally have been serious sermons, delivered with successive, footnoted points, on matters of doctrine, morality and spiritual perseverance.

Still, colleagues say, Oaks can display a disarming sense of humor.

In a 1993 interview, then-Utah Supreme Court Justice Christine Durham recalled that “no matter how heated the discussion [among the justices] might have become, Dallin could invariably tell a story that would get everyone laughing.″

Whenever lawyers droned on with oral arguments, other high court colleagues shared, Oaks would begin sliding down in his seat. Eventually, only the top of his bald head was visible.

He wasn’t afraid to poke fun at his follicly challenged pate, once telling former law clerk Fred Voros: “The Lord made many heads and those less beautiful he covered with hair.”

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune Elder Lynn G. Robbins, left, of the Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is joined by his wife Jan, Dallin H. Oaks of Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and his wife, Kristen, and Elder Kent F. Richards of the Seventy and his wife, Marsha, at the Provo City Center Temple cornerstone ceremony. The Provo City Center Temple was dedicated Sunday, March 20, 2016.


A Provo native, Oaks scored success as an athlete on Brigham Young High School’s 1949 championship basketball team. He also competed on the football and track teams.

As a member of the school band, Oaks, legend has it, also sneaked out some violin cases so that he and some mischievous friends could stage a bogus “bank robbery.” The pranksters reportedly went Al Capone-style into a Provo bank clad in trench coats and hats pulled down on their brows.

They displayed no weapons, his friends would later recount, and took no money — something that apparently kept Oaks and his posse from getting into serious trouble.

His first job was sweeping up at a radio repair shop and testing radio tubes. At 16, that technological fascination led him to obtain a first-class radio-telephone operator’s license.

While he was a BYU freshman, announcing radio coverage of high school basketball games, he met his future wife, June Dixon.

They married in 1952 and had six children. His wife died in 1998.

Oaks remarried in 2000, exchanging vows with the former Kristen Meredith McMain in the Salt Lake Temple.

On Tuesday, Oaks praised Nelson and pledged to support the new LDS prophet.

“I know his love of the Lord and Jesus Christ and his commitment to our Heavenly Father’s plan of salvation,” Oaks said. “I know his love of people. I know of his wisdom.”

He knows, because he has been Nelson’s right-hand man — and he will continue to be so.