“Justice of the Peace” is an imposing title. Almost like Justice of the Supreme Court? Not quite; A Justice of the Peace presides over a court of limited territorial and subject-matter jurisdiction, and is addressed as “Judge” more often than “Justice”. Justices of the Peace were originally English quasi-judicial officers who volunteered to preserve the “king’s peace” in their local county or borough. Important qualifications for the position were land ownership and connections with the monarchy (and later, with the Lord Chancellor and Parliament).
American colonists brought the Justice of the Peace system with them, and it persisted throughout the colonial period and westward expansion. It made sense where communities were scattered and communication and centralized organization difficult. With no monarchy, and little left of the British class and patronage system, the most important qualifications became good judgment and the respect of the community. As population and communications technology increased, centrally-administered and uniform judicial systems arose and eventually became the norm. With increased complexity in society and the law, legal education for judges became a requirement for most types of cases. As the system of federal courts grew, so did each state’s unified judiciary – and so did the requirement that judges be lawyers first.
Today, most states’ trial courts of general jurisdiction have only one or two levels – e.g., Circuit Court and District Court – and are administered from the state capitol. Their procedures are complex and well defined; their judges must be licensed attorneys, and often must have a number of years of legal practice. But the evolution was gradual, and Justice of the Peace and similar judicial offices still held local sway well into the twentieth century.
In quite a few states, courts with lay judges still exist at the local level. Whatever they are named, one common characteristic is that their judges need to be well-known local residents – in part because they are often elected positions. Another common characteristic is that their jurisdiction is limited to a specific area (usually smaller than a county or parish), to only the lowest level of misdemeanor criminal cases, and to civil cases with low monetary limits or non-monetary cases such as evictions.
City, town, village, and other types of municipal courts are the most numerous examples of courts with non-attorney judges. In most states, these municipal courts are the only such courts, and in some states their judges must be lawyers – especially in city courts.
Yet in some states, courts with wider territorial jurisdiction operate with lay judges. They may be called Justice of the Peace Courts or simply Justice Courts. They exist in the following states, where CourtReference’s guides describe their jurisdictional limits: Arizona, Delaware, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Texas, and Utah. Justice Courts in Mississippi and Montana have county-wide jurisdiction; all the rest have more limited territorial jurisdiction.
Note that in New York, Town Courts and Village Courts may also be called Justice Courts, but they are actually municipal courts with jurisdiction limited to their town or village; they were covered by a post here in August, 2010.
One of the most common functions of a Justice of the Peace is to perform marriages. Even in states where Justice of the Peace courts no longer exist, the office may still exist in order to officiate at weddings and perfom other administrative duties such as administration of oaths and taking of depositions. Examples are in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont; in Vermont, Justices of the Peace also serve as election officials and hear tax appeals.
The term “magistrate” goes back to Roman law, but it was also used in early English society to mean a local quasi-judicial official – just like a Justice of the Peace. Not surprisingly, the American colonists also brought that term and position with them. It still exists today in courts that may have limited subject-matter jurisdiction and non-lawyer judges, much like Justice of the Peace Courts.
But unlike Justice of the Peace Courts, Magistrate Courts have county-wide jurisdiction. Magistrate Courts operate today in Georgia, New Mexico, South Carolina, South Dakota, and West Virginia. In New Mexico, the magistrate must have a law degree, but need not be a practicing attorney. South Dakota is also a special case, in that its Magistrate Courts may be presided over by a Lay Magistrate (no law degree) or a Magistrate Judge (law degree); its Magistrate Judges have much broader subject-matter jurisdiction than its lay magistrates.
Note that in many states without named Magistrate Courts, judicial offers with the title of Magistrate serve in many capacities within the state judicial system, and generally must have law degrees. Idaho has a trial court named Magistrate Division, but it is part of the unified state judiciary and its magistrates must be licensed attorneys.
In Pennsylvania, Magisterial District Courts share terminology with “magistrate” and “district” courts, and they also share characteristics of each. They are part of the state’s unified judiciary, and some cover an entire county. But most have jurisdiction over a limited group of municipalities within each county, and their subject-matter jurisdiction is similar to that of Justice of the Peace courts.
Finally in Tennessee, General Sessions Courts don’t sound like they resemble Justice of the Peace or Magistrate Courts, they have countywide jurisdiction, and most of their judges must have law degrees. Yet they are descendants of former Justice of the Peace Courts; although they have been renamed and their jurisdiction made subject to state law, incumbent non-lawyer judges may remain on the bench until they retire or are defeated in an election.
Although courts with lay judges may seem like an anachronism, they are likely to be with us for a while. They handle the least complex cases, where issues of fact are far more likely than issues of law to need “judging”. Even so, in practically every state in which they exist, lay judges are required to attend training classes, and in many states to take continuing education classes. Most important, the communities they serve are not exactly clamoring for change.