How to Become a Justice of the Peace in 5 Steps
A justice of the peace presides over small claims court. Find out how to attain this jurist position, from completing a law-related bachelor's degree to possibly attending law school. Learn how to gain experience in the legal field and pursue a position as a justice of the peace. Schools offering Legal Studies degrees can also be found in these popular choices.
What Is a Justice of the Peace?
A justice of the peace, also referred to as a county court judge or magistrate, is a jurist who issues orders and decisions mostly in lower-level cases. Misdemeanors, traffic violations, pre-trial hearings and small claims make up most of your docket, although you might be allowed to handle contract, probate and domestic relations cases in some states. Your duties include reading motions and pleas; ruling on evidence admissibility; listening to arguments during hearings; enforcing procedural rules; issuing jury instructions; issuing rulings; awarding damages or compensation; and writing decisions.
Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree
As of 2009 about 40 U.S. states would permit you to hold a judgeship with limited-jurisdiction if you didn't have a law degree. In most of those instances you need work experience and a bachelor's degree, possibly in a relevant subject such as legal studies.
A bachelor's degree program in legal studies should teach you the basics of legal procedures and the structure of the U.S. legal system while helping you develop your skills in legal research, analysis and writing. Course topics might include rules of evidence, civil law, criminal law and the history of American law.
Step 2: Consider a Law Degree
Whether by appointment or election, you have a better chance of becoming a judge if you're a lawyer. Becoming a lawyer entails earning a Juris Doctor (JD) degree and passing your state's bar exam. In your first year of a JD program, you examine legal theory and develop competencies as a lawyer. You study multiple areas of law including contracts, property, torts, and constitutional law. In the second, third and fourth years you study specialties of your choice, such as tax law, environmental law or intellectual property law.
Step 3: Accumulate Experience
Internships are one possible avenue for gaining experience. Many bachelor's degree programs in legal studies and most JD programs include an internship or externship. Your other options depend on the education path you followed. If you earned a bachelor's degree you could work as a paralegal at a law firm or as clerical support worker in the local or state court system. If you earned a law degree you could work for a law firm, the district attorney's office, the public defender's office or as a clerk to a sitting judge.
Step 4: Pursue a Judgeship
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that approximately 25,900 judges, magistrate judges and magistrates were employed at the local and state level in 2010 (www.bls.gov). Dedicated figures for justices of the peace weren't available. Employment was projected to reach 26,200 for judges in general over the 2008-2018 decade. You may have a long wait for an opening and will have to be vigilant. Turnover is low in judgeships, and the prestige of holding one assures keen competition for them. As of May 2010 you could have earned a median annual salary of $119,270.
Step 5: Consider Joining a Professional Association
Arizona, Massachusetts, Oregon and Texas are among the states that have special associations for justices of the peace. Membership can benefit you in two ways. One, they may provide information on vacancies. Two, they might sponsor workshops, seminars and guest speakers, through which you can meet continuing education requirements, if any, and help fulfill your duties by filling gaps in your knowledge.
To continue researching, browse degree options below for course curriculum, prerequisites and financial aid information. Or, learn more about the subject by reading the related articles below: