Justices of the peace need legal training - East Valley Tribune: News

Justices of the peace need legal training

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Posted: Tuesday, August 18, 2009 6:53 pm | Updated: 2:33 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

Aaron Richardson: Should you feel comfortable placing your legal state in the hands of a person who does not wholly comprehend the law, no matter how minor the offense? If tomorrow a justice of the peace were removed for judicial misconduct or outright criminal activity, it wouldn’t be the first time. It would hardly be news.

Maybe minor offenses are just that: minor. That’s why jurisdiction of the justice courts is restricted to such cases — civil lawsuits, misdemeanors, small-claims cases (up to $10,000) and traffic offenses — because justices of the peace, micro-masters of fate and upholders of the law, are elected and not required to have any form of law degree or training.

Maybe some of these cases aren’t so minor. Losing $10,000 can certainly wreck a family, and jail time is nothing to sniff at no matter how short the sentence.

Should you feel comfortable placing your legal state in the hands of a person who does not wholly comprehend the law, no matter how minor the offense? If tomorrow a justice of the peace were removed for judicial misconduct or outright criminal activity, it wouldn’t be the first time. It would hardly be news.

Such misconduct includes a justice of the peace who installed a bench-side phone to ask for advice from “friends of the court,” a number of unethical ex parte communications (one side unrepresented), improper dismissals, failures to follow mandatory sentencing requirements, and denying criminal defendants the right to counsel. Check out some of the indiscretions listed by the Arizona Commission on Judicial Conduct at www.supreme.state.az.us/ethics/Handbook_March_2007.pdf.

Not to take away from Arizona’s broad collection of honest, apt justices of the peace, it’s just a shame they aren’t all so qualified.

This subject material stems from a recent experience of a contact of mine who received a citation. The law broken had three subsections according to varying degrees of offense with punishment ranging to up to two years in prison — no such distinction was given on the officer’s ticket. When the concern was brought before the court the justice of the peace grabbed the ticket, ignorant of any details, and penciled in a code. No big deal, right? Court proceedings somehow found a way to continue that day, but that simple motion was outside the lines of proper legal procedure.

Perhaps with a legitimate law education, this justice of the peace would have known better than to scribble on evidence. Instead, Arizona holds partisan elections to decide who is capable of adjudication, the results of which have been judges presiding without so much as a college degree.

“My opponent in the upcoming election has no law degree and is not well-qualified for the position,” said Justice of the Peace C. Steven McMurry of north Phoenix’s Encanto Precinct in a statement that did not condemn the current system but perhaps shed some light on a problem.

Making changes won’t be easy; the criteria for becoming a justice of the peace was established in Arizona’s constitution in 1912, which means legislators must take it upon themselves to amend the state document. One caveat: Lawmakers have a habit of running for a justice of the peace office after their statute-making days are over, a career shift that yields roughly a 400 percent increase in salary.

Currently, Arizona only requires a person to be 18 years of age, able to read and write English, and reside within their justice of the peace precinct.

Justice of the Peace Lester Pearce of the North Mesa Precinct makes a point, “Justices of the peace are chosen by the people, many of whom feel that those who come from their community are best suited to serve them.”

A law degree does not assure flawless judgment; even Superior Court judges have been reprimanded for their decisions. But that is not a sensible excuse to completely forego requiring any legal training for a position that deals exclusively with the practice of law.

Would it overstep the bounds of reason to require a more rigorous legal training program, stringent prerequisites to holding office, or aptitude exams that could place an ill-equipped justice of the peace in mandatory recurring classes? Justices of the peace shouldn’t simply be handed a tome of laws and a mandate to judge based on “common sense,” the status quo, and a bucket of money.

Aaron Richardson of Gilbert is a senior at Arizona State University and an intern with the Tribune Editorial Board.

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