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Unconstitutional Officers


Beginning on this date in 1961, North Dakota would no longer have Justices of the Peace to administer local justice across the state. The State Legislature, in an attempt to reform the state’s judicial system, abolished the office in 1959, replacing it with a system of county courts and judges.

The office of Justice of the Peace has a very long history; the term was first used by King Richard I when he left England “…on a crusade to Jerusalem in the thirteenth century.” The King asked noblemen and knights remaining behind to ‘keep the peace’ within their localities. They were given jurisdiction to arrest offenders and decide local cases, and were compensated by the King for their services.

When Jamestown was established in 1607, the first American Justices of the Peace were instilled. As the country expanded westward, formal courts were few and far between, as were lawyers and judges trained in law. In order to alleviate the situation, many territories employed Justices of the Peace to enforce the law. These men were either voted or appointed into office, and were usually prominent citizens, though lacking in any formal training. They were paid through the fees they collected, and had jurisdiction within their limited locality to try small claims, misdemeanor, and property cases, and also to perform marriages. Unfortunately, the office was often associated with corruption; “One man summed up his opinion of these judges and courts by stating, ‘Look up extortion in your Black’s Law Dictionary, and you’ll see justice courts.’”

In the 1920s, the U.S. Supreme Court found the practice of paying a justice through the fees they collected as unconstitutional. As the U.S. became more populated and settled, lawyers trained in the law became more common, and towns and counties were established with their own courts and judges. Recognizing this, many states, including North Dakota, began to abolish their frontier systems of law, including the office of Justice of the Peace.

Today, several states still continue the office, especially in very rural areas, although the powers granted in each locality vary and are often quite limited. In Massachusetts and Connecticut, these Justices are only allowed to perform marriages, while in Texas, they can hear eviction and land title cases.

Dakota Datebook written by Jayme L. Job


Newton, Samuel P., Teresa L. Welch, & Neal G. Hamilton. 2012 “No Justice in Utah’s Justice Courts: Constitutional Issues, Systematic Problems, and the Failure to Protect Defendants in Utah’s Infamous Local Courts,” Utah OnLaw (1): pp. 27-72.

White, James P. 1960 “The New North Dakota Justice Court,” 36 N.D. Law Review 375 (Vol 36): pp. 246-251.