What Should Be the Authority of Non-Lawyer Judges

There was a time when many states had non-lawyer judges. Our nation had a need for someone to hear minor cases and there simply were not enough lawyers or lawyers willing to do that kind of work. Non-lawyer judges often hear small claims matters. They perform marriages. They hear traffic cases and often hear minor criminal cases.

There are over 6,000 Justices of the Peace and Magistrate Judges in the country. States with Justices of the Peace include Arizona, Delaware, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, New York, Oregon, Texas, and Utah. States with Magistrate judges are Alaska, Delaware, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wyoming. In 1974,  a unanimous California Supreme Court held that it was a violation of the federal right to due process under the Fourteenth Amendment to allow a non-lawyer justice to preside over a case that could result in jail time. Gordon v. Justice Court, 525 P2nd 72 (1974). 

How about the rest of the nation? Should non-lawyer judges be able to jail? The law now permits lay judges to convict defendants of jailable offenses in misdemeanor courts so long as the defendants have an automatic right to a new trial in front of a judge who is a lawyer. But, the Supreme Court is considering a Montana case that raises the question of what happens when that automatic “do-over” trial isn’t guaranteed.


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