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Justice of the Peace

Updated on December 25, 2009

The Justice of the Peace is an office whose origin in England can be traced back to the 13th century. At that time officials now known as justices of the peace were called keepers, or conservators, of the peace, and statutory provision was made for their appointment by the crown in each county. In the 14th century they became known as justices of the peace, in recognition of their increased judicial powers. Thereafter their police, judicial, and administrative duties were considerably enlarged by the legislature. During the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries justices of the peace became virtual rulers of the counties. Toward the end of the 19th century, however, most of their administrative powers were transferred by statute to elected councils, although they retained their judicial powers.

In what is now the United States the office of justice of the peace existed from earliest colonial times. In the 20th century this office, which is provided for by state constitutions or statutes, is connected with the judicial departments of state governments. The primary functions of justices of the peace are judicial, but holders of the office also frequently act in an administrative capacity. The number of justices for a given territory, such as a town or precinct, is determined by constitutional or statutory provisions. Justices are generally elected by the vote of the people but they are sometimes appointed.

Justices of the peace have jurisdiction over the trial of small civil suits and of criminal cases involving minor offenses. Their judicial power extends to actions based on contract or on the taking, detaining, or injuring of personal property, provided in both types of cases that the amount involved is within a defined limit. In general, justices of the peace are prohibited from trying cases where the title to land is involved. Their jurisdiction over criminal cases is similarly limited, being determined by the maximum punishment that can be imposed in a particular case. In addition to their authority to try cases, justices of the peace have other powers and duties, including the preliminary examination of persons accused of crime, the holding of inquests, the issuing of search warrants, and the solemnization of marriages.

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