Sunday, April 13, 2008

'bout time

This should have been done years ago.

Editorial: Justices of the peace should be lawyers
San Antonio Express-News

The 2007 report from the Commission on Judicial Conduct makes a good case for requiring Texas justices of the peace to have a law license.

More than half of the reprimands issued to judges last year went to justices of the peace.

Current law allows anyone to run for these courts; in Bexar County five of the six justices of the peace are lawyers.

In a recent justice of the peace runoff race, incumbent Monica Caballero, who is a lawyer, battled to keep her seat against a challenger with a general equivalency diploma. She managed to stay in office with a campaign based on credentials.

Many of the justices of the peace in the state are non-lawyers. That is not to say they are not working hard, but the statistics from the Commission on Judicial Conduct indicate that some of these elected officials without a legal background often find themselves in over their heads.

One justice of the peace in Cameron County, a former businessman, received four reprimands during his eight years on the bench.

After his last disciplinary action Seana Williams, the commission's executive director, told the Brownsville Herald, "I know he is trying hard. He is just not getting it right."
JP courts are no longer just a place to get married or for an individual to go to settle a minor dispute.

As of last fall, JP courts can handle up to $10,000 claims. More and more of the people utilizing these courts are hiring lawyers.

Having a former pharmacist, a mechanic or schoolteacher up on the bench is just not going to cut it anymore.

According to the Commission on Judicial Conduct, the state has 821 justices of the peace, they comprise 22 percent of the 3,716-member Texas judiciary.

In fiscal year 2007, they received 25 percent of the 1,043 judicial complaints filed. However, they accounted for 62 percent of the disciplinary actions taken.

The commission issued only 45 total disciplinary actions, but 28 of them were for justices of the peace.

The cases against justices of the peace investigated by the commission included one in which a traffic ticket was dismissed on a motion from a prosecutor based on communication with a family she knew from church.

In another case, a justice of the peace found a traffic defendant guilty, assessed a fine and suspended his driver's license based on a telephone conversation with the defendant.

Having a law license brings no guarantees that all the shenanigans will end.

There was one case last year when a justice of the peace was reprimanded for presiding over an eviction case in which his law partner was legal council for the defendant.

However, the expansion of the types of cases the justice of the peace courts can handle makes it crucial that those elected to preside in these court know the law.

A lot more than truancy and evictions is riding on these courts.