What is a Justice of the Peace (JP)?
Justices of the Peace (JP) are elected for four year terms from each justice precinct in Bell County. Bell County is divided into four JP precincts. Precinct 4, which covers all of west Bell County and includes Fort Hood, Killeen, Harker Heights, Nolanville and their extraterritorial jurisdictions has two JPs. The justice of the peace is the presiding officer of the justice court and the small claims court. JPs are unique in a sense that they are one of a hand full of magistrates in the nation that aren’t required to have a law degree or be an attorney to serve.
The justice of the peace has jurisdiction over minor misdemeanor offenses (Class C) and civil matters such as landlord/tenant disputes and debt and small claims when the amount in controversy does not exceed $10,000. A variety of civil processes, as well as arrest search warrants, can be issued by the justice of the peace. The justice of the peace presides over hearings pertaining to suspension of drivers’ licenses and conducts other hearings and inquests. The justice of the peace conducts marriage ceremonies and serves as an ex officio notary public for the precinct. In addition, the justice of the peace has administrative and financial duties concerning the keeping of records, fees and expense reports.
History of the Justice of the Peace Court
The Justice Court is one of several courts established by the Texas Constitution of 1876. Its judicial power, although limited in scope, is as important as the judicial power held by the court of last resort. It is the Justice of the Peace court with which most citizens have contact with the judicial system. It was this need for a more accessible court that prompted the establishment of the Justice of the Peace Court more than seven hundred years ago.
The office of Justice of the Peace is an integral part of the Anglo-American system of jurisprudence. In 1360, King Edward III of England, provided for the appointment of “one lord, and with him three or four of the most worthy in the county, with some learned in law.” These men were “charged with the responsibility for keeping the peace and trying felonies and trespasses on behalf of the King.” The statute, by King Edward III, required two or more of these officials to act together, and soon they became known as justices, the title “Justice of the Peace” being conferred by the 1362 statute 34 Edw. III, c. 12. The office of Justice of the Peace is credited with completing the centralization of government in England. By bringing common people into contact with the noblemen, the office soon became a strong, important, judicial institution. For three hundred years, the English Justices of the Peace contributed immeasurable, through police, administrative and judicial functions, to the final supremacy of the lawmaking body of England.
JPs in the American Frontier
As the American Colonies were being founded, one of the first offices established by the king was that of Justice of the Peace. In the colonial setting, the primary function of the justice was to establish and maintain order. The Americanized Justice of the Peace Court expanded to include taking acknowledgments, performing marriages, and taking dispositions. The Justice of the Peace quickly became a person of recognized standing in the community.
This tradition of a “grass roots” court was quickly instituted when Texas became a Republic. With the sparse population and the need for a decentralized government, the Justice of the Peace became an integral part of the young Republic’s government. The Constitution of the Republic, written in 1836, specified that a “convenient number of Justices of the Peace” were to be elected in each county by the qualified voters for a term of two years.
Justices of the Peace Today
Today, under our present Constitution adopted in 1876, each county is divided into not less than one nor more than eight precincts in each of which there is elected one justice of the peace to serve for a term of four years. When elected, each justice is “…commissioned as justice of the peace of his precinct and ex officio notary public of his county.” Justice courts are not subject to general supervision by any other court. A limited supervisory function is provided for in that rare instance where proceedings may be enjoined by another court acting through proper appellate procedure.
There are approximately nine hundred and fifty Justice of the Peace Courts in the State of Texas. These Justice of the Peace Courts afford our citizenry with a valuable and readily accessible forum for the impartial adjudication of minor conflicts. Approximately ninety percent of our citizenry, who have contact with our court system either appear only in a Justice of the Peace or Municipal Court. Thus, the lower courts are paramount in the attitudinal perception which our citizens develop of our entire court system.