A justice of the peace is a local or state court judge with limited jurisdiction over certain types of legal proceedings, generally not including felony criminal cases. They are similar to municipal court judges, and they perform many of the same duties. These responsibilities include adjudicating traffic violations, performing marriage ceremonies, trying small-claims cases, and conducting pretrial hearings. Some states allow these justices to handle cases involving domestic relations, contracts, and other selected legal matters. Work hours might be long when preparing for hearings, but many justices of the peace work part-time in this position and maintain other full-time employment.
|Degree Level||Juris Doctor (JD)|
|Experience||Experience as a lawyer often required|
|Licensure and Certification||Lawyers must be members of the state bar|
|Key Skills||Critical-reasoning and decision-making skills, good listening skills, and strong reading comprehension|
|Salary (2019)*||$120,090 per year (median salary for judges and hearing officers)|
Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May, 2019), Justice of the Peace Association (http://www.jpus.org)
Get Bachelor's Degree
A career as a justice of the peace typically begins as an attorney. The first step is to earn a bachelor's degree. The American Bar Association (ABA) does not recognize a specific pre-law major. Undergraduates can prepare for law school with a bachelor's degree in any field, but a pre-law program could be helpful if it is available. Other applicable programs typically include courses in criminal justice, psychology, and sociology. Philosophy and political science are also common choices. Academic advisors can help pre-law students select a major that will best prepare them for law school.
Go to Law School
Following an undergraduate degree program, aspiring justices of the peace should enroll in law school to earn a Juris Doctor (JD). Gaining admission to an ABA-accredited law school requires prospective students to take the Law School Admission Test (or LSAT). A law degree program generally takes three years of full-time study to complete.
Law degree programs that may provide useful training for a future justice of the peace can include those with concentrations in areas such as public policy, litigation, and dispute resolution. Some schools offer Juris Doctor (JD) and Master of Public Administration (MPA) dual degree programs that combine legal studies with administrative practices.
Pass the Bar
Upon completing law school, graduates must pass the bar examination in the states in which they wish to practice law. The bar exam is a written test based on the standards established by the state's highest court. At this point in their careers, many future justices of the peace intern with a legal organization or law office as a legal assistant or paralegal to get hands-on experience.
Some states allow non-attorneys to hold a limited number of judgeships with limited power. However, experience as a lawyer opens up career options for a justice of the peace. As a lawyer, a future justice of the peace may focus on practicing either criminal or civil law. Criminal lawyers focus on people accused of breaking the law, while civil lawyers concentrate on contracts and litigation of disputes between parties that don't necessarily involve a legal violation.
After acquiring experience as an attorney, aspiring judges are normally appointed or elected to their posts. These positions are often available only to individuals with experience as attorneys. The minimum requirement in most states is that the individual be a registered voter with no felony convictions.
Move into a Judgeship
In most states, the functions of the justice of the peace system have been absorbed into the larger judicial system. In states where the office still exists, its jurisdiction and powers are limited to minor legal matters. Still, an ambitious lawyer could use this position to make himself or herself well known and respected in the legal and the at-large communities. This would help build a private legal practice and provide a launching point for a career as a judge or magistrate.
To recap, a justice of the peace is a local or state court judge. Therefore, these individuals need to earn a bachelor's degree, attend and complete law school, and likely work as an attorney, before being appointed to the judicial system.