History of JP Court
The judicial power of the State of Texas is vested in the various courts established by the Constitution of the State of Texas written in 1876, as amended. Judicial power is the power to decide the rights and interests of all the people and, by application of the law, to protect those rights and interests. One of the courts established by the 1876 Constitution is the Justice of the Peace Court. 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 their only 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. As King John of England agreed in the Magna Carta of 1215, “We will appoint as Justices, Constables, Sheriffs or Bailiffs, only such as know the law of the realm and mean to observe it well.” In 1360, King Edward III 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.
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.
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.” Despite being commissioned for particular precincts, the justices in a county may exchange benches, or a justice may hold court for any other justice whose precinct is in the same county. In the event there is a vacancy in the office, or the justice is unable or unwilling to perform, the nearest justice in the county may temporarily perform the duties of the office. Moreover, in those situations where a justice is disqualified, sick or absent from his precinct, the parties to the suit may agree upon some person to try the case; but, if they fail to agree, the county judge, upon application, shall appoint some qualified person to try the case. Furthermore, provision is made that in the event a justice is disabled, the county judge may appoint a qualified person to serve during the period of disability.
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.
Today, 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.