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Pulaski County officials mull changing 'justice of the peace' title

by William Sanders | June 21, 2021 at 7:04 a.m.
The original copy of the Arkansas Constitution, penned in 1836, is displayed under glass in the Justice Building in Little Rock in this April 27, 2001, file photo. (AP/Danny Johnston)

Pulaski County elected officials are again floating the idea of renaming top county officials' titles, which have roots in a bygone era of local government.

County legislators and executive leaders in Arkansas have been called "Justices of the Peace" and "Judges" since the inception of the positions themselves.

The title sees use in some other states, usually in the judicial system with many taking part in marriages among other legal areas.

But only in Arkansas do justices of the peace refer to a county legislator.

During the Pulaski County Quorum Court Agenda Committee meeting Tuesday, Justice of the Peace Lillie McMullen, the court's current representative to the Arkansas Association of Quorum Courts, asked other justices of the peace about the title and potential new names.

"The only thing I could really [think of] would be county counselor," McMullen said. "Nevertheless, if someone comes up with a better name, I'm sure they'll do it."

Adam Fogleman, the county attorney, told the court that the position of "justice of the peace" was created by the Arkansas Constitution, meaning any change would require a constitutional amendment.

Justice of the Peace Paul Elliot said he tried to jump-start such an amendment in the past to no avail.

"They get to vote on three items you can put on the ballot," Elliot said. "And they say changing our name from justice of the peace to commissioner, there's a lot more things more important than getting that on the ballot."

Elliot previously served as a Vice President of the Association of Arkansas Quorum Courts, trying to encourage state legislators to put the proposed title change on the ballot. Between the fact that a name change would not make any significant difference and many justices of the peace wanted to keep the name, Elliot said he was unsuccessful.

"Some people wanted the change," Elliot said. "I asked them about getting it changed, and some of them didn't want to."

Randy Higgins, president of the Arkansas Association of Quorum Courts and a Faulkner County justice of the peace, said the position sounds like a judicial position because, until the early 70s, it was.

"Before Amendment 55, the Arkansas Constitution was lined up such that county judges and justices of the peace were established in that format like most states were during the 1800s," Higgins said. "You had counties and counties were subdivided into townships, and the county judge was the chief executive of each county. The justice of the peace was very similar to a county judge in their township. There was JP court that handled, I think, most misdemeanor cases."

Higgins said he stumbled into a wealth of information about old justice of the peace courts from reading old records in the Faulkner County Courthouse.

"I went down to the Faulkner County Courthouse and was looking through some old records of the 1800s, and what probably should have been a 20-minute search, I bet I spent four or five hours going through those records, reading accounts of JP courts," Higgins said.

These courts would be able to hear most misdemeanor cases like tick-dipping violations.

"Arkansas was infested with ticks, and everybody had to have their livestock tick dipped," Higgins said. "And if you didn't, a farmer could file a claim against another farmer for not having [it done.] They could go before a justice of the peace and have a warrant issued."

In the 70s, when government was reformatted, the executive and legislative branches of local government became what it is today, according to Higgins.

"It became that the county judge was the chief executive of the county, and the justices of the peace were reformed into the legislative body," Higgins said. "And what they did was for historical purposes, they just kept the names."

Higgins also heard that Tennessee changed the names of their county government officials after car manufacturers like Nissan and Toyota began building factories in the state and some of the foreign company officials were confused by the names.

Tennessee Code, Section 5-5-101, eliminated the names in 1978.

When asked if he would be in favor of a name change, Higgins said unless there was a case substantially confusing people he would like to keep the name.

"In Arkansas, I'm not seeing that need. I'm not seeing where there's confusion," Higgins said. "If there was something to generate it where it was really being confused, I guess I would listen to it. Being a traditionalist, I kind of like being a justice of the peace."

Print Headline: County legislators mull changing 'justice of the peace' title


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