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Justice of the Peace

From the founding of the state until January 1, 1977, justices of the peace functioned as the lowest rung of the West Virginia judiciary. The office had its origins in England and was transplanted to colonial Virginia in the 17th century. In West Virginia, ‘‘JPs’’ were given jurisdiction over misdemeanor offenses and small civil claims. The justices of the peace would also set initial bail in felony cases and conduct preliminary hearings.

Justices of the peace received no salaries but were compensated by the costs assessed against the losing party in civil cases and against criminal defendants who were convicted. Thus, it was long part of the legal folklore of West Virginia that ‘‘JP’’ stood for ‘‘judgment for plaintiff,’’ that is, the person who brought the suit. If a defendant was acquitted in a criminal case, the justice was not compensated. In the early 1970s, in two separate cases, the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals ruled the fee system unconstitutional.

In 1974 the voters approved the Judicial Reorganization Amendment, which established the county magistrate system as a part of a general restructuring of the judicial branch. The magistrates, like the JPs, are elected, but they are paid a salary and are subject to the discipline of the Supreme Court. A broad-based coalition, including business, labor, and civic leaders led the successful fight for the passage of the amendment. The only political figure of any standing to oppose passage was newly elected Supreme Court Justice Richard Neely.

The name of the new magistrate courts was taken from the federal model. In other states these courts are called district courts or occasionally municipal courts. West Virginia’s municipal courts, left unchanged by the 1974 amendment, continue to handle misdemeanor cases within the boundaries of municipalities.

Written by H. John Rogers