Justices of the Peace: Just what do they do?

By Steve Korris | Apr 26, 2007

Justices of the peace in Texas, perching on the lowest rung of the judicial ladder, normally don't attract attention.

Tom Gillam III counts as an exception, because KOLE radio host Philip Klein accused him of immorality on an Internet web log. Gillam has charged Kelin with defamation.

Gillam's sudden fame raises a question: What jobs do justices of the peace perform?

According to their official manual, they have original jurisdiction over crimes not punishable by confinement. In such cases they issue arrest warrants.

They can issue subpoenas for witnesses in criminal cases and they can conduct jury trials.

They can issue arrest warrants for acts that have not occurred, if informed under oath that an offense is about to be committed against a person or property. The accused person must enter into a peace bond.

They conduct inquests if a person dies in jail or if a dead body is found under unknown circumstances.

They can order autopsies and they can have bodies disinterred.

They can issue arrest warrants if inquests show probable cause to believe who caused the death.

They conduct fire inquests if they find grounds to believe someone set the fire.

They can conduct hearings to suspend or revoke driver's licenses.

They have exclusive jurisdiction over civil cases involving $200 or less. They can hear civil cases involving as much as $5,000 if no higher court has original jurisdiction.

They hear forcible entry and detainer actions.

They can perform marriages, and when they do they can personally retain a fee.

They complete birth and death certificates, unless they transfer the job to a county clerk.

Voters elect them for four year terms.

They do not need law degrees. Any Texan over 18 can run for the office.

They must complete 80 hours of training in their first year, plus 20 hours a year after that.

They can hold other public offices, but not in the legislative or executive branches.

In 1976 a Texas appeals court ruled that an individual could serve as justice of the peace and teach at the same time.

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