Last year, Yellowstone County Justice Court handled 13,568 cases, including 6,297 with only traffic tickets. The rest were misdemeanor criminal offenses, civil lawsuits involving up to $12,000 in claims or contract disputes, orders of personal protection and search warrants. The county’s two justices of the peace also arraigned felony criminal defendants and set their bonds.
The JP Court is on a similar busy pace in 2017 with 11,143 cases filed as of Oct. 10.
The County Commission is taking applications for a new justice of the peace to fill a vacancy that will occur with the retirement of Pedro Hernandez at the end of November. Hernandez is a fixture in the Yellowstone County Courthouse where he has presided in JP court for 42 years. Hernandez probably has been on the bench longer than any other Montana jurist. We thank him for his years of service, his good humor and his harmonica music.
Now that he has announced his retirement, the commissioners have the job of appointing a replacement to serve until the 2018 election. Voters will then choose to retain that JP or elect someone else.
There is no one else like Hernandez. He’s not a lawyer, but in his decades on the court he amassed vast experience in the law.
Montana statutes don’t require that a JP be a lawyer, but in Yellowstone County, the new JP should be. When Hernandez started his long career, the county population was much smaller; the court workload was less and people who didn’t like the court’s judgment could start over by requesting a new trial in District Court.
Several years ago, the Yellowstone County Commission made the wise decision to designate our JP court as a court of record. That means all court proceedings are recorded. Legal issues in decisions of the JP court may be appealed to District Court, but there’s no complete repeat of the work of the JP court.
Hernandez and Justice of the Peace David Carter preside over numerous trials every week, have to do their own legal research, and write orders of the court. The JPs are called upon, along with the District Court judges, to issue search warrants for law enforcement, including DUI search warrants for certain suspects who refuse a breath test.
The responsibility of presiding in Yellowstone County demands a justice of the peace who is a competent attorney. The ideal candidate would have significant courtroom experience and a resume that shows he or she can complete a lot of work correctly and quickly.
The commissioners tapped County Attorney Scott Twito to head the committee that will review applications. The panel will forward its top-ranked candidates to the commission.
The justice of the peace job pays an annual salary of $101,082, plus health insurance and other benefits. This is a job for a legal professional who already knows the law and courtroom procedure.
Four years ago when the commissioners were considering an appointment to replace retiring Justice of the Peace Larry Herman, a Gazette opinion urged them to choose a capable attorney. They appointed Carter, who at that time was a deputy county attorney working daily in Justice Court.
We renew that call to commissioners: Appoint a competent attorney as justice of the peace for Montana’s most populous county.