justice of the peace

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Justice of the Peace

A judicial officer with limited power whose duties may include hearing cases that involve civil controversies, conserving the peace, performing judicial acts, hearing minor criminal complaints, and committing offenders.

Justices of the peace are regarded as civil public officers, distinct from peace or police officers. Depending on the region in which they serve, justices of the peace are also known as magistrates, squires, and police or district judges. In some districts, such as the District of Columbia, justices of the peace are considered officers of the United States. In other regions, their jurisdiction is limited to a state, city, precinct, county, or township.

The position of justice of the peace originated in England in 1361 with the passing of the Justice of the Peace Act. In colonial America the position, with its judicial, executive, and legislative powers, was the community's main political force and therefore the most powerful public office open to colonists. Legal training was not a prerequisite.

Maintaining community order was a priority in the colonial era. The justice of the peace in this period was responsible for arresting and arraigning citizens who violated moral or legal standards. By the early 1800s, the crimes handled by the justice of the peace included drunkenness, Adultery, price evasion (selling below a minimum price fixed by law), and public disorder. Justices of the peace also served as county court staff members and heard Grand Jury and civil cases. The increasing number of criminal, slave, and tax statutes that were passed during the 1800s also broadened the enforcement powers of the justice of the peace.

Today justices of the peace deal with minor criminal matters and preside only in the lowest state courts. Their legal duties encompass standard judicial tasks such as issuing arrest or search warrants, performing marriage ceremonies, handling routine traffic offenses, determining Probable Cause, imposing fines, and conducting inquests.

The duties of a justice of the peace vary by statute, and it is the justice's responsibility to know which actions are within the scope of his or her jurisdiction. For example, a few statutes do not allow justices of the peace to be involved in the operation of another business or profession; however, they can invest in or receive a salary from another business, as long as they are not involved with its operation.

Justices are often considered conservators of the peace. They can arrest criminals or insane people, order the removal of people who behave in a disorderly fashion in a public place, and carry out other duties designed to maintain or restore a peaceful community.

Justices of the peace have limited power in criminal and civil cases. They have jurisdiction over minor criminal matters, including misdemeanors, infractions, and petty offenses. Their powers of civil jurisdiction are determined by the respective statutes that govern their position. At the highest level, a justice may handle cases that involve contracts, torts, injuries to Personal Property, and personal injuries such as libel, slander, False Imprisonment, and Malicious Prosecution. Justices of the peace do not have jurisdiction over cases that involve real property titles, easements, or rights of way.

Depending on the tradition in the area where they serve, justices of the peace are either elected or appointed; the method by which they reach their office has no bearing on how much power they have. Appointments are typically handled by the state's legislative body or governor; however, this task may be delegated to local authorities, such as county supervisors or commissioners.

Once elected or appointed, and before taking office, a justice of the peace is required to take an oath and post an official bond. Some statutes also require new justices to sign a sworn statement that they have never been convicted of a misdemeanor or felony.

The length of the term of a justice of the peace varies with the constitution or statute that created the position. If a vacancy is created before a term expires, a public official, such as the governor, fills the vacancy; some statutes require that a special election be held. The replacement justice of the peace usually completes only the remainder of the term or serves until the next scheduled election.

Justices of the peace can be removed from their position for a variety of reasons, including official misconduct or conviction for a misdemeanor or felony. They must have knowingly committed the inappropriate act or acts with improper motives. Usually, the statute that defines the position will outline the procedure for removing a justice of the peace from office. Ordinarily, the justice is served with a notice of the charge or charges and is given an opportunity to be heard before she or he is removed.

If a justice of the peace wishes to resign, he or she must present a letter of resignation to the appropriate official; once the resignation is accepted, it cannot be withdrawn.

Further readings

Carnahan, Douglas G. 1999. "Justice of the Peace; Judges Practice the Fine Art of Repairing Division." The Los Angeles Daily Journal 111 (March 8): 6.

Forte, David F. 1996. "Marbury's Travail: Federalist Politics and William Marbury's Appointment as Justice of the Peace." Catholic University Law Review 45 (winter).

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

justice of the peace (J.P.)

n. a judge who handles minor legal matters such as misdemeanors, small claims actions, and traffic matters in "justice courts." Dating back to early English Common Law, "JPs" were very common up to the 1950s, but they now exist primarily in rural "justice districts" from which it is unreasonable for the public to travel to the county seat for trials of minor matters. In Nevada Justices of the Peace are lucrative jobs since they perform many of the marriages of elopers from other states, as Nevada has no waiting period from license to wedding. A justice of the peace is usually an attorney, but some states still allow laypersons to qualify by taking a test.

Copyright © 1981-2005 by Gerald N. Hill and Kathleen T. Hill. All Right reserved.

justice of the peace (JP)

a lay magistrate, appointed by the Crown or acting ex officio, whose function is to preserve the peace, to try summarily such cases as are within the jurisdiction, and to perform miscellaneous administrative duties.
Collins Dictionary of Law © W.J. Stewart, 2006
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Blackerby, Samuel, The Justice of Peace His Companion (1711).
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