Monday, May 19, 2008

Law west and east of the Pecos

Going to these Courts in Texas has always been, to me, an exercise of hope. I hope the Judge is reasonable. I hope the Judge understands the finer points of the law. I hope the Judge is here, well you get the picture.

Please understand I am not condemming all JP Judges. The vast majority of them are hard-working Americans, people of color, of all kinds, Black, White, Brown and Yellow, who do their best everyday to follow the law and render equitible justice.

Some, not so much.

Tex-Arcana: Aspect of state's frontier justice lives on: Judges without law degrees
By Janet Elliott:

AUSTIN — Judge Roy Bean may have been the most famous non-lawyer judge in Texas history, and a vestige of his frontier justice is alive and well in modern-day Texas.

No law degree is needed to decide criminal and civil matters at three levels — municipal, justice of the peace and constitutional county courts.

In the 1880s, when Bean held court in his saloon, laypeople were allowed to dispense justice out of necessity: There weren't many lawyers in Texas.
“It's an old system in that regard,” said Carl Reynolds, director of the state's Office of Court Administration.

Bean was a justice of the peace in Pecos County. According to “Legendary Texans, Vol. II” by Joe Tom Davis, he relied on a single law book, the 1879 edition of the Revised Statutes of Texas. If newer law books appeared, Bean used them as kindling.

Today, about 57 of the 821 peace justices in Texas are not licensed to practice law. Those courts hear misdemeanor criminal cases in which punishment upon conviction may be by fine only. They also have jurisdiction over small claims, but are not “of record,” meaning that a party unhappy with the outcome has to start over with a new trial in a court of record.

A justice of the peace also has authority to issue arrest warrants and hold preliminary hearings. They may perform marriage ceremonies for additional compensation, which can amount to a considerable income boost in populous counties.

“We're a more formal society now than 150 years ago when we started creating positions with non-lawyer judges,” said Lee Parsley, an Austin lawyer who has studied the role of peace justices for Texans for Lawsuit Reform, a group that wants judges to be licensed attorneys.

But even today, a number of rural counties don't have a single lawyer.

Non-lawyers also can serve as judges of constitutional county courts, which are courts of record. They hear low-dollar civil disputes, juvenile cases and probate matters. Twenty-eight of the state's 254 such judges are not lawyers.

About half of the state's 1,416 municipal judges are not lawyers.

Municipal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over criminal violations of certain municipal ordinances and have concurrent jurisdiction with the justice courts in some misdemeanor cases. They also are not courts of record.

Nigel Cohen, an Edinburg lawyer who teaches at the University of Texas-Pan American, has done research on non-lawyer judges around the country. Noting that law courses are available over the Internet, he said it would be feasible for Texas to reform its court system to require law degrees.