Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Justices of the Peace

by Naomi Rawlings

Today the term Justice of the Peace isn't overly common. In fact, your one and only thought about a justice of the peace might be that they can preform marriages, and that is true. Historically speaking, however, justices of the peace had a much more prominent role in society.

In 1880, going before the justice of the peace would be today's equivalent of going to small claims court. Justices of the peace were part of a state's judicial system, not the federal judicial system. Thus the jurisdiction and role that they had in local communities varied from state to state.

In Michigan, a justice of the peace could hear a case that involved a hundred dollars or less. In some southern states, such as Virginia, a justice of the peace only had jurisdiction over cases involving fifty dollars or less. Justices of the peace could hear everything from land disputes to paternity cases to debt disputes. Larger cases would be heard by a magistrate judge, and in rural areas, those often had traveling circuits. 

Justices of the peace were usually elected by popular vote, though once again, this could vary from state to state. In Michigan, four justices of the peace were elected per county. Depending on how populated a certain area was, a man might hold a justice of the peace position as well as another job. Maybe the justice of the peace in a certain county only heard cases on Mondays and worked elsewhere during the rest of the week. And in case you were wondering, in most states, women could not be a Justice of the peace, only men.  

One rather infamous justice of the peace in Texas was named Roy Bean. He called himself "The Law West of the Pecos" and held court in the saloon that he owned. Court wasn't usually held in a saloon, though. It could also be held places like schools, hotels, and town halls--if a town had one. 

Have any of you ever been to small claims court? How do you think things might have been different if you went before a justice of the peace a hundred and thirty years ago? Do you know a justice of the peace today? 


A mother of two young boys, Naomi Rawlings spends her days picking up, cleaning, playing and, of course, writing. Her husband pastors a small church in Michigan’s rugged Upper Peninsula, where her family shares its ten wooded acres with black bears, wolves, coyotes, deer and bald eagles. Naomi and her family live only three miles from Lake Superior, where the scenery is beautiful and they average 200 inches of snow per winter. She is looking forward to the release of her fourth novel, Falling for the Enemy, in January 2015. For more information about Naomi, please visit her website at www.NaomiRawlings.com.

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  1. In Aust is still very common infact most towns have several as they do things like witness signatures for official forms, They will also be in small court cases, also when police need a blood test or some sort of test a JP can authorise it.
    We had a couple in our church. When I filed an affidavit I had to have a JP witness it.

    1. That's neat that they still play such an important part of life in Australia, Jenny.

  2. I've never been to small claims court. Just a hunch, but I'm thinking legal things may have been simpler then and taken less time. Thank you for the interesting post!


  3. Very interesting post...thank you so much! The JP where we live is a woman. She has held that office for a number of years.

    mauback55 at gmail dot com

  4. Interesting article!


  5. Thanks for sharing interesting info about Justices of the Peace. I've never been to small claims court, but my grandma loves watching Judge Judy :)

    1. :-) Judge Judy is certainly a character, isn't she? I've never been to small claims court either, though I do wonder how the process would have differed.

  6. Nope haven't been to see a judge...guess that's kinda good -but interesting post! =) truckredford(at)gmail(dot)com

  7. The county where I live has had justices of the peace In the recent past.