Non-Lawyer Judges: Municipal Courts

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Last month we discussed judges (Justices of the Peace and Magistrates) who are not required to have law degrees, and whose courts have jurisdiction over areas larger than a city or town. Judges of city, town, village, and other municipal courts in many states are also not required to have law degrees or be practicing lawyers. These judges only have geographical jurisdiction over their own municipality, and in many states their subject-matter jurisdiction is limited to violations of the municipality’s ordinances.

We reviewed New York’s Town Courts and Village Courts in a 2010 post; with over 1200 such courts, New York has the highest number of non-lawyer judges in the United States. Some New York town and village judges may be lawyers, especially in larger towns, but most are not. Note that the City Courts located in larger cities of New York are part of the unified state judiciary system, and their judges must also be lawyers.

New York is not alone; 31 other states have municipal courts, and in most states their judges are not required to have law degrees. Only Alabama, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, and New Jersey require all their municipal judges to be lawyers. In other states, state law may not require all municipal judges to be lawyers, but some of them must be. For example, Texas – with over 900 municipal courts – does not require its municipal judges to be lawyers. However, individual Texas municipalities may require their judges to be lawyers by ordinance or charter provisions. Other states in which municipal judges’ qualifications are set by local ordinance or charter include Arizona and Oregon.

In North Dakota and Washingon, municipal judges in larger cities must be lawyers, while those in smaller cities need not be. In Oklahoma, judges in larger cities must be lawyers; those in smaller cities must be too, unless no local lawyer is interested in the position – in which case the mayor may appoint a non-lawyer. In Wisconsin, municipal court judges must be lawyers only when they preside over a joint municipal court.

Municipal court judges in all states must obtain some type of orientation and training; the amount required varies from state to state. In South Carolina, Tennessee, and West Virginia, municipal judges who are lawyers do not have to attend as much training as their non-lawyer peers. In Georgia, most municipal judges must be lawyers, but non-lawyer judges who were on the bench as of June 30, 2011 may continue as long as they attend the same training classes as all other municipal judges.

Some local courts are called “Mayor’s Courts” but that doesn’t mean the mayor is automatically the judge too. In Louisiana, although the mayor is often the judge of Mayor’s Court, the mayor and board of aldermen will often appoint a magistrate to preside over court. While the mayor does not have to be a lawyer, an appointed magistrate must be a practicing lawyer. As we noted last month, magistrates in most states have jurisdiction over areas larger than a single municipality; Louisiana’s appointed magistrates’ jurisdiction, like mayors’, is limited to their municipality.

In Ohio, as in Louisiana, many municipalities have a Mayor’s Court, presided over by a mayor who does not have to be a lawyer. As in Louisiana, many mayors appoint someone to preside over their Mayor’s Court. Unlike Louisiana, the person appointed to preside over a Mayor’s Court in Ohio does not have to be a lawyer. Note that Ohio also has Municipal Courts, which sometimes have countywide jurisdiction, and whose judges must be practicing lawyers.

Delaware municipalities have Alderman’s Courts, and their presiding aldermen may or may not be required to be lawyers, depending on the provisions of the municipality’s charter. Wrapping up the list of municipal court judges who may also be local officials, municipal judges in Arkansas may be also be the non-lawyer mayor – but if the mayor decides to appoint a judge, that judge must be a lawyer.

Whether the judge of your municipal court is a lawyer or not should make no difference in the conduct of your case. The cases within their jurisdiction are usually violations of local ordinances – most often, traffic tickets – and don’t involve complicated questions of law. Decisions are most likely to turn on questions of fact, which don’t require legal training; after all, they are the questions juries must decide in other courts.

Whether your municipal judge is a lawyer or not, you can find the court’s contact information, as well as links to applicable online resources, at CourtReference.


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