Last week’s indictment of a Texas justice of the peace is just the latest in a long history of that state’s justices who either don’t know or don’t care about the laws they are sworn to enforce.
A Hidalgo County grand jury indicted Mary Alice Palacios on three counts of official oppression for sending three teenagers to jail after they failed to pay court costs on other matters. The American Civil Liberties Union also has filed a civil suit against the justice over the detentions. The State Commission on Judicial Conduct hasn’t issued any statement on the charges.
Texas justices of the peace have kept the commission busy in the past; Palacios is just the latest accused of misapplying justice. Many have been reprimanded to varying degrees.
One Cameron County justice was sanctioned for spanking teens who appeared in his court; another for sending a truant girl and her mother to a jail cell, and telling them they could go back to Mexico if they didn’t value our education system (the girl and her mother were both U.S.-born citizens).
In these and other investigations, the commission has generally concluded the justices simply didn’t know or understand the laws they were applying, or misapplying. That’s not good, considering these officials are elected, and paid, to enforce those laws, and their decisions can have wide-ranging effects on those who come before them.
One of the students in Palacios’ case, for example, missed a state exam and was expelled from school because Palacios had sent her to jail even though, the indictment and lawsuit charge, other options could have been considered. Other people can endure severe financial difficulty, and even lose their jobs because of a ruling from a justice of the peace.
Despite this level of influence and authority, there’s nothing in state law that requires justices of the peace to have any understanding of laws or legal procedure. It’s a popularly elected position, and the law does not require a person to be a certified lawyer to hold the position. Most of them aren’t.
Sadly, many of the Texas justices who have been sanctioned have held their positions for several years, as Palacios has. It’s alarming they don’t seem to show interest in learning the law even after they’re elected.
The Texas Legislature has debated bills that would establish requirements for the position of justice of the peace. They’ve all been voted down, however. The position is defined by the state Constitution and establishing such requirements would require a state referendum.
People often see justices of the peace primarily as those who handle traffic tickets in unincorporated areas of a county and perform civil weddings. Their authority goes far beyond that, however.
Justices of the peace handle misdemeanor criminal cases, and small claims and other civil matters. They also have magistrate powers and can issue arrest and search warrants.
Perhaps it’s time for state lawmakers to once again address the need to ensure the robed officials in all our courts are qualified to determine guilt and punishment, and consider a bill that would set minimum standards for justices of the peace.
Until that happens, Texas voters should not assume that people seeking to be elected justices of the peace know anything about the job. Too many of them have proven that they don’t.