Justices of the peace (JP) are judicial officers with limited power. The duties of a JP includes hearing cases that involve civil controversies, conserving the peace, performing judicial acts, hearing minor criminal complaints, and committing offenders. JPs are given the power of civil public officers. They are judges who handle minor legal matters such as misdemeanors, small claims actions, and traffic matters in justice courts. According to the state laws, JPs are known as magistrates, squires, police, or district judges. Usually, JPs are attorneys. In some states, laymen are allowed to take a qualifying test to become a JP. Mostly, JPs are elected by people. They can also be appointed by the state.
Generally, the office of a JP is a public office[i]. A JP has jurisdiction to try small cases. There is no special pleading before a JP and the parties have a right to participate in the proceedings. The office of a JP will be connected to the department of justice in every state[ii]. In most matters, constitutional and statutory provisions regarding judges or justices include JPs also. However, the office of a JP is not the same as that of a judge even though small cause cases are heard in the offices of JPs. It will not be considered as a court. In some jurisdictions, offices of JPs are considered as courts of records[iii].
A JP receives compensation on the basis of salary[iv]. However, mostly the compensation is in the form of fees[v]. However, the fee system is subject to scrutiny to avoid violation of constitutional provisions. A JP is not permitted to collect a contingency fee for services performed. Some statutes do not allow JPs 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. The term of a JP in office will be regulated by constitutional or statutory provisions. The JP holds office until a successor is elected and appointed[vi]. When a JP is elected or appointed, before taking office, the JP should take an oath and post an official bond. In some states, the new JPs should sign a sworn statement that they have never been convicted of a misdemeanor or felony.
JPs are considered as conservators of the peace. They have the power to 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. In Nevada, JPs have another important duty. JPs have been provided the rights to perform marriages in the state. There is no waiting period from a license to wedding in Nevada. Therefore, some people from other states come to marry in Nevada.
JPs can be removed from their position only on the basis of charges such as official misconduct, or conviction for a felony or a misdemeanor. The only defense applicable to a JP is that s/he acted in good faith. A JP can be removed only when s/he committed an inappropriate act with willful intention[vii]. A JP can also be removed under the charges of incompetence, or inattention to official duties. Each state will have statutory provisions regarding removal of JPs from office. However, the JP charged with misconduct or incompetence should be given a chance to be heard before s/he is removed[viii].
A JP can resign from office when s/he desires[ix]. A formal letter of resignation is to be submitted before the official stated in the statutes of the state. When a JP has submitted an absolute and unconditional resignation, it cannot be withdrawn after acceptance by the authority.
[i] Hardy v. Kirchner, 232 F. Supp. 751 (E.D. Pa. 1964).
[ii] Township Of Dearborn v. Dearborn TWP. Clerk, 334 Mich. 673 (Mich. 1952).
[iii] Commonwealth ex rel. Warren County v. Cox’s Adm’r, 264 Ky. 327 (Ky. 1936).
[iv] Upton v. Manchester, 56 N.H. 54 (N.H. 1875).
[v] Hancock v. Davidson County, 171 Tenn. 420 (Tenn. 1937).
[vi] State ex rel. Long v. Nebraska City, 123 Neb. 614 (Neb. 1932).
[vii] Mississippi Judicial Performance Com. v. Coleman, 553 So. 2d 513 (Miss. 1989).
[viii] Coffey v. Superior Court of Sacramento County, 147 Cal. 525 (Cal. 1905).
[ix] United States ex rel. Watts v. Lauderdale County Justices, 10 F. 460 (C.C.D. Tenn. 1882).