Oct 26, 200912:00 AM
The Editor's Room
Weekly Commentary with New Orleans Magazine’s Errol Laborde
Errol Laborde: What Exactly Is a Justice of the Peace?
A local weekly newspaper recently had a headline that said, “Louisiana Judge Refuses to Marry Mixed Race Couple.” A letter to the editor in last Saturday’s Times-Picayune had the headline “Justice Casts a Poor Light on La.” The letter, which was in response to an earlier Picayune article headlined “Couple Sue Tangipahoa Justice,” moaned that the decision by Tangipahoa Parish Justice of the Peace Keith Bardwell not to marry the couple was causing the state to be ridiculed in the national media, including CNN.com, which was “having a field day, saying that this shows how ‘primitive’ Louisiana is.”
By now Bardwell’s goofy decision has received so much ridicule and has been disavowed by so many people in high places that there is little to add to the argument. But, for the sake of all the headline writers and ridiculers, one point needs to be made, and it is an important one: A justice of the peace is not really a judge. To run for the office, a person does not have to be a lawyer or schooled in law. To confuse JPs (as they are commonly known) with the black-robe-wearing judiciary reminds me of what my high school history teacher told our class about the Holy Roman Empire: “It was neither holy nor Roman nor an empire.”
Justice of the peace is an outdated office that was created long ago mostly to serve rural areas that were inconveniently far from county (or parish) seats. The position’s responsibility was mostly to settle minor disagreements and very minor claims. There is nothing that JPs do that establishes legal precedent. I come from a family of JPs. Long ago my grandfather on my mother’s side was a JP in a small area of Avoyelles Parish. My grandfather, who operated a general store, was succeeded eventually by two uncles on my father’s side. One of my uncles was a farmer; the other worked at a refinery. None was schooled in the law. I doubt if any had ever seen a law book. Yet all three were popular enough that they could be asked to settle disagreements. The story was told that when my uncle the farmer was JP, he was called upon to break up a domestic dispute between two women. He did so by driving one of the women to the polls because the day happened to be Election Day, and he was up for re-election. By the time the woman returned from voting, tempers had cooled, and the conflict was resolved.
In modern times the job has become so outdated that a few years ago JPs lost their protection in the state constitution. The position can now be abolished simply by an act of the Legislature. Sure, JPs have the power to marry people, but so do some ship captains. That does not mean that they have any judicial significance.
If I could rewrite the headlines to more accurately reflect the situation, they would say, “Louisiana Minor Official Refuses to Marry Mixed Race Couple” and “Rural Politicians Cast a Poor Light in La.” I would not confuse the office with justice. As for the folks at CNN.com, I would ridicule them for not understanding the difference.