Time to bring back Calif. Justices of the Peace

July 2, 2012

By Michael Warnken

Upon recent news of the state’s $16 billion dollar budget deficit, the legislature began making deep cuts in numerous programs. One of the most devastating cuts of $544 million was to the state judiciary. On June 13, there was a large rally in front of the Capital building made up mostly by Trial Judges, the Chief Public Defender and the District Attorney of Sacramento County as well as the current president of the state bar. All of them were protesting these cuts, the effects of which will absolutely cripple California’s third branch of government.

Since judicial salaries are protected against pay cuts by the Constitution, most cuts are directed at court support staff. These staff cuts directly affect the judiciary’s ability to handle its already burgeoning caseload.  Right now, California cases which already take a long time to resolve, will now take even longer to resolve and disputes may linger for years.  This is a problem that will affect all of us and a solution to this problem needs to be found and implemented.


California’s judicial system as a whole is expensive and inefficient. Our judiciary boasts over 2,000 members, but when compared to other states, it has fewer judges per capita and needs more judicial officials to handle its caseload. California also has the highest paid judges in the nation. Trial judges earn $178,000 per year; which is almost as much as Federal Judges. This figure does not include the cost of their hefty retirements. To put this in perspective, the chief Justice of New Hampshire’s Supreme Court makes $145,000 per year.

Trial judges are supported by a smaller number of Court Commissioners. The number of Commissioners varies by county and they are paid slightly less than Judges at about $160,000 per year to hear cases. Commissioners handle many lesser judicial responsibilities including minor traffic matters, criminal misdemeanors/infractions as well as some civil and family law cases. However, Commissioners do not save the system much in the end.

The Administration of the Courts (The AOC), another branch of the judiciary located in San Francisco, handles the executive functions of the court system. This includes updating Court facilities and handling non-judicial functions. It was recently audited by order of the Chief Justice. The finding of that audit was that 1 in 3 employees in the AOC made in excess of $100,000 per year. This is quite an expense to the taxpayers for non-judicial duties.


In the early days of the State, the entire government was small. According to the census, in 1850, 92,000 people lived in the entire state, which was divided into just 10 counties at the time. There were also just 12 State Judges to manage the major court matters of California. They were apportioned into 9 judicial districts each with one Superior Court Judge. The Supreme Court, the only court of appeal in the state, had just 3 members.

The majority of the judicial work done in California was by a small multitude of Justices of the Peace (JOP’s) scattered across the state. No number seems to exist in print, but their apportionment as per statute was that there would be two for every inhabited township (an area six miles by six miles square). They only handled misdemeanors and minor civil disputes, often amounting to a few dollars. If an issue brought before them was greater than their jurisdictional limits, the JOP’s had the power to order the issue held over to a Superior Court Judge.

JOP’s were paid per duty performed and were not salaried. They generally received a very minor remuneration and were not a financial burden to their locality. JOP’s were easy to get to, well known to their small communities and were generally within walking distance for everyone. They amounted to quick, fair justice. Citizens in the community would observe the proceeding and, in this process, they learned about the law. If a community felt a Justice of the Peace was unfair, they would vote him out of office!

Though it is not clear why, JOP’s were done away with in California around 1960 after being in place for over 100 years; they were replaced with municipal judges. The professionalization of the California judiciary began.

With this change, the cost of the Courts went up, but the caseload capacity of the judges did not. The existing JOP’s were promoted and received pay raises for their new positions. Taxes had to go up to pay for these new supposedly higher ranking judges. Legal training for the municipal judges became a prerequisite as higher standards for becoming a judge were implemented.

In 1997, a similar event occurred. Municipal judges were done away with and all judges became full rank Superior Court Judges, again with higher salaries. Many decent sized cities no longer had local judges and many people had to travel some distance to have their casees heard. People who were arrested no longer received prompt, probable-cause hearings, as they should, before they are locked up. And other hearings requiring prompt attention became more difficult to obtain.


Most states in America still have Justices of the Peace. They are employed in big states like Texas and New York as well as small states such as Vermont and Louisiana. Different states grant them different powers. Salaries for such an office vary widely as well, but for the most part, it’s very little and often amounts to pay for each duty performed rather than fixed salaries. Such duties include taking oaths, notarizing paperwork and presiding over weddings as well as hearing minor civil and criminal matters.

Since having Commissioners doesn’t save us much, they should be promoted and consolidated into full Judges.

Then, the office of Justices of the Peace should be reintroduced. The salaries for JOP’s should be set low and not raised as it was in the past. In California, there are many retired persons with legal training who could hold such offices. City council chambers in almost every community that tend to be used only one day a week could facilitate hearings.

Citizens should not be forced to travel far off distances to deal with minor infractions as they are today and no traffic ticket should be decided by anyone costing the taxpayers $160,000 or more per year — the silly reality of how our judiciary works today.

Establishing a training program for JOP’s would be simple, as California could implement any one of many programs used in the states that still have them. We could even tailor a program to California from more than one state. JOP’s could relieve the Courts of all small claim and other minor trial matters. It is possible that they could even be allowed to hold jury trials as well. The Justices could soon chip away at the current case overload.

California is in dire fiscal straights and cuts have to be made. The Judiciary and every other department facing cuts can march in front of the capitol and protest as much as they want, but the reality is, the state is in belt tightening mode. Dispute resolution is an absolute essential aspect of a functioning democracy; it is not something we can or should give up. This practical, workable solution should be considered by the legislature and acted on. The citizens’ access to their courts should not suffer due to the fiscal ineptness of our government.

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