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.

AN OVERVIEW OF THE JUDICIARY

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.

JUSTICIAL TRANSITION

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.

THE CURRENT REALITY

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.

18 comments

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  1. Rex the Wonder Dog!
    Rex the Wonder Dog! 2 July, 2012, 14:06

    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 Rules of Court, Rule 2.816 Et Seq; 2.816 (b)

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  2. Michael Warnken
    Michael Warnken 2 July, 2012, 17:54

    The Problem with Temporary Judges is that they are not elected and are not accountable to anyone. Also, Tickets and fines seem to be universally given to Commissioners, who are also not elected and paid too much to hear small cases.

    The point is, there many communities that do not have judges and the cost to add one is prohibitive at $160,000 or more.

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  3. Rex the Wonder Dog!
    Rex the Wonder Dog! 2 July, 2012, 19:41

    Commissioners are paid the same as regular judges, and yes, they are vastly over paid for the type of work they do……………

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  4. Rex the Wonder Dog!
    Rex the Wonder Dog! 2 July, 2012, 19:45

    Constitution: California Constitution Article VI, Section 21
    Rules: California Rules of Court, Rule 244
    Upon stipulation of the parties the Temporary Judge has all of the powers of a sitting judge to hear and determine all pretrial motions and discovery matters, preside over the trial and render judgment, and hear and determine all post-trial motions. The Judge Pro tem must be a member of the State bar and must take an oath of office. Within the cause in which he who is appointed, a judge pro tem may punish for contempt.

    NEVER use a Pro tem judge-ever, not even for traffic tickets.

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  5. Michael Warnken
    Michael Warnken 2 July, 2012, 23:12

    Agreed! I am most concerned with how Judge Pro-Tems are appointed by other Judges and are not elected. I believe Justices of the Peace should be given small electoral districts say 1,000 to 5,000 people at most. They should have relatively short electoral cycles, say 2-3 years at most. Salary should be miniscule. I hesitate to put a number down, but modest at best.

    Most cities no longer have judges. The City of Davis has about 100,000 people and no Judge. Other Cities without Judges Vacaville with 30,000 or so. Goleta Ca, 90,000; Carpinteria 12,000. Any municipality with 1,000 or more should have at least one minor judge.

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  6. Ray O'Seighan
    Ray O'Seighan 3 July, 2012, 12:13

    Justice Court Judges (also known as justices of the peace)in California prior to, and into, the 1970’s were not required to be lawyers, vacant seats were appointed by the County Board of Supervisors, and were elected by the voters of their judicial district. Each judicial district was made up of all, or a portion, of a County. Each County set the salary for their judges. As late as the early 1970’s the Sierra County Justice Court paid $12,000 per year

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  7. Stan Brin
    Stan Brin 5 July, 2012, 15:57

    What would be the qualifications for a JP? What would be their oversight? I fear rural speedtraps and other abuses of the past. It might be best to get a handle on commissioners. Just a thought.

    Reply this comment
  8. Rex The Wonder Dog!
    Rex The Wonder Dog! 6 July, 2012, 19:06

    Commissioners are paid the same as a regular superior court judge- $180K plus benefits worth another $150K. That is outrageous for the work they are doing- hearing traffic infractions and small claims cases, a trained chimp could do either as good as a commissioner.

    Reply this comment
  9. Liberty1776
    Liberty1776 8 July, 2012, 19:43

    Sounds like we sorely need to reconsider the existence of JOP’s if we have any of intention of living up to our revered standard, “Liberty and Justice for All”.

    Great article.

    Reply this comment
  10. Dubare'
    Dubare' 8 July, 2012, 20:00

    Excellent idea. As current judges retire, replace them with a sufficient number of JOP’s to do the job. Even tho retired judges will receive those hefty retirement benefits, those will eventually end. While it might take 20 or 30 years to significantly reduce the excessive costs of the judiciary, at least we, the Citizens of California, would be on the right path.

    Reply this comment
  11. Paul in CA
    Paul in CA 8 July, 2012, 20:12

    A common sense approach is what we need. I have NEVER seen common sense in the court system, & when someone like Michael suggests change the usual response is negative because the pride thing jumps up “who are you to tell us”.

    Reply this comment
  12. velayna
    velayna 8 July, 2012, 23:11

    Salary seems to be a huge issue. It seems like the more they get paid, as with lawyers, the less one can expect from them along the lines of performance. Perhaps JOP duty could be a community assignment along with jury duty so that the people could expect to be judged by their peers and perhaps maybe even listened to!

    Reply this comment
  13. Ernest
    Ernest 8 July, 2012, 23:14

    This is an excellent idea that will be opposed viciously by the established judiciary. It is essentially an expansion of small claims court. The problem with our current court system is that it is expensive, slow, and inconsistent. Look at the success of TV programs like Judge Judy: there are all sort of conflicts that need resolving on a local level. Instead they fester, until they become a police problem. I would love to see a large consumer rights organization take this on.

    Reply this comment
  14. freedomgal
    freedomgal 9 July, 2012, 01:31

    Fabulous article. A clear reminder of how a return to the simpler ways can be most rewarding..from every aspect.

    The pros of bringing back the JOP far outnumber any cons that may be raised, in my opinion. The actuality of that happening, however, seems highly improbable considering the size of the current local government and the lack of desire on their part to acknowledge the benefits of such a plan..as opposed to the loss in income they would experience.
    It puts me in mind of the Federal government refusing to address TORT reform as a means of reducing health care costs.

    I did not see any suggestion in your article, Michael, about a possible strategy to bring back the JOP’s. If you’ve got one I would be extremely interested in hearing it. I am a “We The People” advocate and would love to sink my teeth into this one.

    Reply this comment
  15. LibertyBelle
    LibertyBelle 9 July, 2012, 08:44

    Too bad we cant just fire them all and start fresh! I agree, it does make sense to reinstate some JOP’s, but remember, this is California, and Cal. just DOES NOT make sense. How would we go about getting the JOP’S back in business, and what would happen to all of the Judges? They would still receive their huge salary wouldnt they? Would we be able to fire them all? And then we still have their retirement to pay. I know their are plenty of people out their willing to to a job, ANY job for less salary AND benefits, we could be saving MILLIONS!!

    Reply this comment
  16. George Guynn, Jr
    George Guynn, Jr 9 July, 2012, 22:21

    Great article, Michael. It is passed time to cut the fat. I have watched a lot of trials that have judges that would be overpriced if they worked for free! Using justice of the peaces is a great start to improve the process. Money can be saved and we get better decisions to boot. Bravo!

    Reply this comment
  17. Michael Lamboley
    Michael Lamboley 11 July, 2012, 20:44

    Good article, well written, and a good idea. Let’s try it!

    Reply this comment
  18. William Suman
    William Suman 17 January, 2013, 13:33

    I’m just now finding this excellent article. I’m coming in very late to the discussion. Has there been any more published on the subject of judicial reform in California and in particular the reinstatement of the JOP system?

    Reply this comment

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