A Brief History of JPs
Along with their meager possessions, the early English settlers brought to the new world a well-developed set of ideas about laws and justice. And though they sought freedom from an oppressive monarchy, they kept one of the king’s institutions: the Justice of the Peace.
In the American colonies, every state had a Justice of the Peace system at one time or another, although specific duties varied from state to state, and still do. Since they were rarely paid and were not trained or qualified, their duties usually extended to minor matters such as vagrancy and misdemeanors. Some of the founding fathers were JPs, the most famous being George Washington! In some states a JP was also the coroner, empowered to determine the cause of death. The results were as accurate as the JP’s medical training and investigative skills (usually nil)!
As time went on, in many states the JP system was absorbed by the state’s “regular” judicial system (e.g. New York). Those that still use JPs continue the original traditions. JPs are often not paid, usually appointed, and perform only minor duties. They may issue warrants for search and arrest, conduct preliminary hearings and administer oaths. They may have jurisdiction in financial matters such as foreclosure of mortgages and enforcement of liens on personal property. One of their most enjoyable duties is performing the marriage ceremony.
- The requirements for JP’s vary state to state. To learn more about JPs, select a state tab, below.
Fun Fact: The Justice of the Peace system is still alive and well in other countries colonized by the English, notably Canada, Australia and New Zealand.