Colorado Justice of the Peace, 1859-1962

Colorado Justice of the PeaceColorado Justice of the Peace, 1859-1962

In Colorado, the office of Justice of the Peace (JP) existed for over 100 years, from 1859 to 1962, when justice of the peace courts were abolished by voters in a constitutional amendment.

JP Court’s jurisdiction under the Colorado Constitution of 1876 was limited to:
1. only matters involving amounts under $300.
2. no matters involving real estate boundaries or title.

After 1923, they could try misdemeanors, hold preliminary hearings of felony cases, perform marriages, administer oaths and affirmations, and take acknowledgments.

A JP was required to be a county resident for one year, a qualified elector, have a residence and office in the township where elected. After the election, they had to post $2,000 bond and take an oath of office. As compensation, they could retain up to $5,000 per year in fees collected, other fees went to the county general fund. Most JPs were older retired men with no legal training. If they lived in the county seat, JP Court was often held in a room at the courthouse. In other towns, JP court was held at their home or business place.

Colorado Justice of the Peace Authority

Justices had jurisdiction to hear cases involving:
bonds, debts, contracts, promises, promissory notes, loans, rent
goods, merchandise, work, labor, services rendered
trespass in cutting timber, trespass on personal property, trespass on mining claims or real property, covenant
an executor or administrator
assault, battery, affrays
actions against sheriff, coroner or constable for malfeasance, misfeasance or nonfeasance
fish and game cases
traffic cases

Colorado Justice of the Peace Procedures

justice shall give a bond of $2,000.
suit shall be filed before justice in the township where defendant resides.
all evidence shall be under oath.
if witness is unable to attend, a written deposition may be used.
justice shall issue a subpoena to any required witnesses.
parties may choose to refer the case to arbitration.
either party may demand a trial by jury of 6 or 12 persons.
justice may dismiss related, biased or interested witnesses.
persons appearing before justice must maintain a decent, orderly, respectful manner or be fined for contempt of court.
execution may be issued as soon as judgment is rendered, are directed to the constable, and due in 30 days.
parties may appeal judgment to county court.
not a court of record.
authorized to receive money due for notes, demands, judgments. Must keep and report a financial record.
justice shall keep a record book (docket book) of all cases and judgments and safely keep all file papers.

Justice of the Peace History

The earliest evidence of justice courts is found in a statute of King Edward III of England in 1327. It established the office of Conservator of the Peace in each county. Justices had authority to keep the peace and to bind criminal offenders over for trial by a higher court. In 1360, power was added to try felonies and trespassers. Conservators then became known as the Justice of the Peace. Over the next three centuries, the powers and duties were increased and he became one of the most powerful county officials.

In Colonial America, the justice was one of the first offices of local government, as early as 1630. They were appointed by the governor and not required to be trained in law.

In 1692, Massachusetts Bay Colony authorized the justices “…to hear, try and adjudge all manners of debts, trespasses and other matters involving in controversy a value not exceeding 40 shillings.

After the American Revolution in 1776, the office departed from its English model and devolved from county-wide to precinct-wide or township-wide significance. By 1860, it was a minor office with limited jurisdiction.

Colorado Justice of the Peace History

Kansas Territory and Jefferson Territory

When gold was discovered in the region in 1858, and Denver City was founded, it was still part of Arapahoe County, Kansas Territory.

Prior to gold mining, the few transient European visitors encountered by Indians were explorers, mountain men, fur trappers, and prairie buffalo hunters. Some trading post forts with residents, including Bent’s Fort, were built along rivers, usually at river junctions. To settle criminal charges and legal matters, a few frontier trials were held at a trappers’ rendezvous or a trading post.

Judge Roy Bean Langtry TXAs the resident population increased due to gold mining activities, the citizens of Kansas Territory felt a need to have local courts for faster resolution of cases. The capital of Topeka was 600 miles away, too far away. There was no railroad at the time, so travel by horse was time-consuming on poor trails and with the risk of attacks by Indians.

In the mountain mining districts, citizens set up local miners’ courts. In the eastern plains, they set up people’s courts to dispense frontier justice. In 1859, the citizens voted to create the self-proclaimed Jefferson Territory and set up a government including a court system. But, Jefferson Territory was extralegal, not approved by Congress, and the area was still officially part of Kansas Territory.

Jefferson Territory included a Supreme Court, District Courts, County Courts and Justice of the Peace Courts in 1859. The main characteristics of the historical office were included. Justices had jurisdiction over petty criminal offenses and civil cases with amounts under $200.

Colorado Territory

In 1861, Congress created Colorado Territory which joined the Union although there were many Confederate supporters from the South. It had 17 counties and included land from the previous Kansas Territory, as well as land from Nebraska Territory, New Mexico Territory, and Utah Territory.  JP jurisdiction was reduced to $100.

State of Colorado

After 15 years as Colorado Territory, the population grew, the railroad had arrived, and Colorado became a state in 1876, with 26 counties, and 4 district courts. The territorial office of Justice of the Peace continued on during statehood. JP jurisdiction was increased to $300.

It was often a long distance to a county court or district court, but each community had a local justice of the peace court to settle minor civil matters and disputes. The number of justice of the peace courts increased rapidly as the state population grew.

Justices were county officers with two elected per precinct. County commissioners set precinct boundaries. There were few cases in remote and rural areas.

Justices had little or no legal training or knowledge of the law, rules of evidence, and court procedure. Many did not have copies of the Colorado Statutes. JP Courts were not coordinated or uniform in quality or procedures. Each JP set up and ran court the way he liked.

Colorado Judicial Reform

Colorado’s population grew rapidly before and after World War II and problems with the JP Courts became apparent. Following several studies, the state legislature referred a constitutional amendment to the voters to reform the state court system. The amendment passed by overwhelming vote and justice of the peace courts were abolished in 1962.

CO Supreme Court building DenverHigher qualifications were set for other judges and the Colorado Supreme Court was responsible for setting uniform standards and procedures for other courts.

Judicial reform also changed the method for selecting judges. Prior to reform, citizens chose judges in partisan elections. Judges were nominated by a political party and elected like political candidates. So, Democratic judges were elected in the Democratic cities of Denver and Pueblo, and Republican judges were elected in Colorado Springs, Denver suburbs, and agricultural regions.

With 1966 reform, a judicial nominating commission nominates two or three candidates for an open position to the Governor. Then the Governor makes an appointment choice from that list. During elections, voters are asked “Shall Judge x be retained in office?” and can vote out bad judges. Party affiliation is not shown on the ballot.

There are now 22 Colorado Judicial Districts (see map). County judges serve 4-year terms, district judges serve 6-year terms.

In some states, notaries also have the powers of an ex-officio justice of the peace.

Image Credits:
1. Colorado Court logo, public domain
2. Judge Roy Bean, Justice of the Peace, Langtry, TX, public domain, fair use for education
3. Colorado Supreme Court Building, Denver, public domain

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