Alexander Davidson Justice of Peace Rutherford County N.C. 1783
Justices of the peace had wide ranging duties, particularly in less developed, rural counties. While the position was originally created to enforce the “king’s peace,” as suggested by its name, the job grew in scope and importance as homesteaders extended into the western wilderness. Colonial justices had wide civil jurisdiction and also sat as a “court of record” in criminal cases. Compared with their northern counterparts, southern justices of the peace had additional powers pursuant to odious slave codes. Justices of the peace were responsible for maintaining order in the community as the arresting and arraigning magistrate.. The Justices of Peace was also responsible to watch over the morals of the community ranging from drunkenness, gaming, and adultery to property crimes. In Alexander Davidson's administrative role they also authenticated deeds and affidavits, were empowered to officiate marriage ceremonies, and raised the “hue and cry”. (a calling for the pursuit and capture of a criminal)
Prior to the American Revolution, the overwhelming majority of law books in the colonies were English legal texts, treatises and other authorities. There were few formally trained lawyers and the publication of law books was expensive. Distinctly American jurists and authors would gradually emerge following the Revolutionary War as the country established its own laws, legal precedents, and caselaw.
Among the duties of a justice were regulation of hunting, hog-stealing, Indians, runaways, servants, slaves and tobacco. Local justices of the peace played an important role in both government administration and the adjudication of legal disputes. Although justices of the peace were commonly drawn from elite circles in the larger established community, In remote locales, many lacked formal legal training, as a result, manuals for justices of the peace were necessary tools of the trade. After the Revolutionary War, justices of the peace became more professionalized and the fees they could charge were increasingly specified by law.
Justices of the Peace, or judges of record, were appointed in early colonial North Carolina for certain county or borough districts to preserve the peace and ensure that the law and legal processes were thoroughly and expeditiously observed. Appointments of justices of the peace were made by governors on the recommendation of the Proprietary royal council of the colony, giving the post significant executive power.
The justices of the peace were often the most visible governmental officials in the lives of North Carolinians When the American colonies adopted the office, these duties remained largely in-tact, and volunteer justices were often responsible for keeping the peace before there were paid police and judges in the colonies. The constitution of 1776 provided that the chancellor and all judges should hold office during good behavior, removable either for misbehavior, on conviction in a court of law, or upon address of the General Assembly, provided that two-thirds of all members of each house concurred in such address.
With regard to the southern states, the Virginia constitution of 1776 provided that judges of the several principal courts were to continue in office during good behavior. If judges of the General Court were accused by the House of Delegates of an offense against the state by maladministration, corruption, or other means that endangered the state, impeachment proceed- ings were to take place in the Court of Appeals. Impeachment proceedings against other judicial appointees were to be held in the General Court. Under the North Carolina constitution of 1776 judges of the Supreme Courts of law and equity, judges of the admiralty, and justices of the peace were to hold office dur- ing good behavior. Any judge offending against the State by maladministration, corruption, or violation of any part of the constitution, might be prosecuted upon impeachment by the In South Carolina, the 1776 constitu- tion provided that all judges of courts of law (except justices of the peace) were to be commissioned during good behavior, re- movable on address of the General Assembly and legislative council. The 1778 constitution continued the provision for commissions during good behavior but made these judges re- movable upon the address of the Senate and House of Representatives.
North Carolina's first state courts were largely continuations of the colonial system and thus influenced greatly by the English court system. A county court, called the Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions, was held in each county by the justices of the peace appointed by the governor from the recommendations of the General Assembly. The justices of the peace were paid from fees collected. In other words, if these justices did not collect any fees, they were not paid! When the county court was out of term, they held court individually or in pairs, to consider lesser matters.
The only experience that some people have with the court system in North Carolina is before a Magistrate. As an officer of the district court, Magistrates have authority over certain civil and criminal matters. Many people also know that a Magistrate is the only civil official in the state who can perform marriages. Less well known is the fact that the Magistrate's Court is the oldest court in North Carolina. Even in colonial days "Justices of the Peace" presided over the Magistrate's Court and had jurisdiction over petty criminal offenses and some civil matters. By 1794 the North Carolina General Assembly had limited the authority of the Magistrate's Court in civil matters to debts and demands not exceeding twenty pounds ("dollar" was not a commonly used term in North Carolina until the mid-nineteenth century). This limiting cap on the value of civil cases was raised to twenty-five pounds in 1802, to thirty pounds in 1803, and to $100 by 1860. According to Ante-Bellum North Carolina by Guion Griffis Johnson, a Justice of the Peace could hand down quite a few penalties. These included a fine of $1 for anyone violating the Sabbath, a fine of $20 for neglecting to notify the county that a stray farm animal had been found, and a forfeiture of double the amount lent by any creditor charging more than 6 percent interest on a debt. Although Magistrate's Court was often held in the courthouse or town hall of a city, any building might be used in rural North Carolina. A Justice of the Peace in Surry County held court in his kitchen because his wife did not want the other floors in her home "begaumed with tobacco-juice" or scarred from the nails in the "litigants' home-made shoes."
Civil trials before a Magistrate are limited by statute to those involving "small claims." A small claim action is one in which
the amount in controversy does not exceed five thousand dollars, and
the principal relief requested is monetary, or the recovery of personal property, or the ejectment of a tenant.
A small claim action is begun by the filing of a "Complaint" with the Clerk of Superior Court in the county where the defendant lives. Upon receipt of the Complaint, the Clerk of Superior Court issues a Summons to the defendant stating the date, time, and place of trial. (The trial date must be within thirty days of the filing of the complaint.) Trials in a small claims action are heard by the Magistrate without a jury. Although rules of evidence apply as in other courts, simplified trial procedures are followed. Attorneys are usually not present. The Magistrate's ruling has the same effect as that of a district court judge and is placed in the records of the court. However, either party may appeal a Magistrate's ruling to district court for a new trial. Magistrates also hear cases involving the eviction of tenants. Our state's General Assembly has aggressively enacted laws governing how a landlord regains possession of property. In fact, it is the public policy of North Carolina that tenants be evicted only in accordance with the statutory procedure of "summary ejectment." Any landlord attempting to remove a tenant without the involvement of a Magistrate can even be held liable for damages. Once a tenant holds over and remains on premises without the permission of the landlord, a landlord may sue for summary ejectment. As in other small claims actions, the landlord drafts a small claims Complaint and asks that the Clerk of Superior Court issue a Summons. As part of the summary ejectment action, the landlord may claim past rent due as well as rent for the occupation of the premises since the end of the lease. If a tenant defends the action, the Magistrate hears all of the evidence and renders a judgment. If this judgment is for the landlord, the tenant may appeal within ten days by posting a bond. Rent from the tenant continues to be due during the appeal. If no appeal is taken by the tenant within ten days, the county sheriff is instructed to remove the tenant's property and place the landlord in possession of the property. As in other trials before a Magistrate, either party can appeal the judgment to the District Court for a new trial.