AMP University: Things Your High School Civics Teacher Didn’t Teach You
As a democracy, America’s different levels of government rely on a wide array of elected positions, and it is the duty of every citizen to vote for who they think is best fit to fill each of those roles. Unfortunately, not all positions get the level of attention they deserve, and this is often because most people simply don’t know what they do. They might be obscure, niche, or just downright confusing.
The Arkansas position “Justice of the Peace” falls primarily into the third of these categories, frequently leading to low voter turnout despite the importance of the office. If you had to guess which branch of government a justice of the peace falls under, the judicial seems like a no-brainer. Unfortunately, in Arkansas, they have nothing to do with the justice system or with keeping the peace. So what are they, and why should you care?
The title “Justice of the Peace” originated in England, as King Richard the Lionheart first commissioned certain knights to be “keepers of the peace” in 1195, and a later act in 1327 appointed “conservators of the peace,” while the official name “justice of the peace” was established under King Edward III in 1361. In the modern-day UK, there are still Justices of the Peace who continue exercising powers given to them almost seven centuries ago.
In America, the title persists, but the rights and duties of the position have changed dramatically across time and from state to state, even ceasing to exist in some of them. In many states, JPs are still a part of the judicial system, typically presiding over the less serious cases like misdemeanors, traffic violations, and small claims court proceedings. In some states, they have roughly the same role and powers as a notary public. Oddly enough, almost all have the power to perform common-law marriages, one of the very few things they have in common beyond the name.
The history of Justices of the Peace in Arkansas stretches back to its days as a US Territory when they were still a part of the judicial system. Like constables, they served as a substitute for a more official and professional system of judges and police officers who could not reach all of the state’s rural areas. Though their role in the justice system was replaced, the name has remained.
In the Arkansas of today, JPs are elected to serve on the “Quorum Court” (which is not a legal court and has nothing to do with the usual definition of the word quorum) of a county, which is presided over not by a count, but by the “County Judge,” who is also not a judge and has no judicial powers. Got all that?
Despite all of the confusing names that never mean what they ought to, what Justices of the Peace do is really quite simple. The quorum court is the legislative branch of a county government. Their primary duties are setting the county’s budget and tax rates and deciding how many employees the county will have and how much to pay them. The county judge oversees the court but has no vote. They do have the power of veto, but the court can overrule said veto with a 2/3rds majority, much like the United States Congress. The quorum court is legally required to meet every month, and JPs get paid per meeting rather than a regular salary.
Their powers are also heavily limited by the Arkansas General Assembly and constitution. For example, although quorum courts set tax rates, Amendment 71 to the constitution lays out which kinds of property are exempt and which are taxable. There are also tight restrictions on how high they can raise taxes, e.g., a tax levied to pay for road maintenance cannot exceed 3 mills on the dollar of taxable purchases, or a 0.3% sales tax. Other restrictions are set by the Arkansas General Assembly, like the minimum and maximum that the Justices of the Peace are paid for each meeting or the minimum and maximum that they can pay other county officials.
Every county in Arkansas has a quorum court, but the number of JPs varies based on population, from nine at the lowest to fifteen in Pulaski County. Each justice serves one district and is elected for two years, so every JP goes up for reelection every even-numbered year.
Remember, while local politics may not seem as earth-shaking or flashy as major laws and scandals on the national level, who your Justice of the Peace is can have just as strong (and likely more direct) an effect on your life than a senator or representative in Congress. If your roads are riddled with potholes and your local libraries are underfunded, turn to your district’s Justice of the Peace. Local politics deal with small numbers of voters, so your voice and your vote will have an impact. Even better, the only requirements to becoming a JP are having the right to vote and being a resident, and they only meet once a month. If you want things done right in your county, consider running for Justice of the Peace and doing them yourself.