Justice of the Peace

views updated May 29 2018


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).

justices of the peace

views updated May 18 2018

justices of the peace. The forerunners of the justices of the peace were the conservators of the peace, first appointed in the reign of Richard I. In the 13th cent. conservators of the peace, consisting of knights and gentry of the county, served on the commissions of assize, oyer and terminer, and gaol delivery and were also given other peacekeeping duties, extended from time to time by legislation until, in the reign of Edward III, they were given powers to punish offenders and in 1344 to hear and determine criminal cases. A new function was entrusted to the conservators when, after the Black Death had decimated the population, the statutes of Labourers provided for the fixing of wages by the justices. In 1361 it was provided by statute that in every English county there should be ‘one lord and with him three or four of the most worthy in the county with some learned in the law’ to ‘keep the peace, to arrest and imprison offenders, to imprison or take surety of suspected persons and to hear and determine felonies and trespasses done in the county’, and in 1363 a further statute provided for the holding of sessions four times a year (the quarter sessions). They were now the ‘justices of the peace’ and were and still are appointed by the crown to the commission of peace for the county.

From that time onwards, the legislature increasingly extended the role of the justices of the peace. Their judicial function remained a vital part of the administration of criminal justice, though the calibre of the justices was variable—they were at first noblemen or country gentry, later prosperous burgesses or clergy, and until 1906 were subject to a property qualification. Literature provides us with numerous examples of justices, many of whom were scarcely admirable in performing their duties, especially when dealing with the poor and indigent.

The justices of the peace have been called the maids of all work of the English legal system. In addition to their judicial and peace-keeping duties, they were used to administer the poor laws and, through the quarter sessions, to oversee the whole of local government. These duties are no longer performed by the justices, but they retain a role in the keeping of the peace—they issue warrants in certain circumstances—and although quarter sessions were abolished in 1971, the magistrates' courts remain a vital part of the administration of criminal justice in England and Wales, trying most criminal cases. They also hear and decide applications for the licensing of premises for the sale of alcohol or for gambling.

Maureen Mulholland

Justice of the Peace

views updated May 17 2018


JUSTICE OF THE PEACE. Justices of the peace were originally medieval English officials authorized to keep the peace and to try felonies and trespasses at the king's suit. In more recent times, they dealt with numerous other affairs of local government. The office flourished in the colonies from the beginning. The justices exercised both criminal and civil jurisdiction—the former through the courts of Quarter or General Sessions, the latter by statutory authority that authorized them to try all manner of debts, trespasses, and other matters involving not more than forty shillings, or, in Virginia, "one hogshead of tobacco not exceeding 350 pounds." In Maryland the justices of a county made up the county court, and later the governor designated some of their number, known as "justices of the quorum," for court service. In New York the justices gradually supplanted the old Dutch commissaries. In North Carolina they possessed exclusive jurisdiction over the crimes of slaves.

In most of the colonies, the justices in court sessions exercised sweeping local executive and administrative powers; drew up the levy; collected the tax; appointed road commissioners and supervised highways; made disbursements; granted licenses to keep taverns and retail liquors; and appointed and controlled administrators, executors, and guardians. They generally took acknowledgments of deeds and depositions and performed marriage ceremonies, but they seldom exercised the sweeping authority of the English and Welsh justices of levying wage assessments of laborers.

While the institution still exists in some states, the criminal jurisdiction of justices has narrowed, and they are now mainly committing magistrates. Appointive officers in colonial times, they are now generally elected, with compensation from fees paid by parties losing in litigation. As in colonial days, they are usually members of the laity. By World War I, justices of the peace no longer existed in most urban areas.


Botein, Stephen. Early American Law and Society. New York: Knopf, 1983.

Friedman, Lawrence Meir. A History of American Law. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985.

Richard B.Morris/a. e.

See alsoHundred ; Marbury v. Madison ; Midnight Judges .

justice of the peace

views updated May 17 2018

jus·tice of the peace • n. a magistrate appointed to hear minor cases, perform marriages, grant licenses, etc., in a town, county, or other local district.