Delaware Justice of the Peace Court celebrates milestone anniversary

Justice of the Peace William Wilson is seated at his desk in his court in Georgetown in September 1925. (Submitted photo/Delaware Public Archives)

Justice of the Peace William Wilson is seated at his desk in his court in Georgetown in September 1925. (Submitted photo/Delaware Public Archives)

Delaware Justice of the Peace Court celebrates milestone anniversaryDelaware Justice of the Peace Court celebrates milestone anniversary

DOVER — One of Delaware’s oldest offices is the subject of a new exhibit at the Delaware Public Archives.

The celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Justice of the Peace Court formally joining the Delaware State Court system also included a gathering Wednesday at the Archives of court officials — including Delaware Supreme Court Chief Justice Leo E. Strine Jr. and Delaware Chief Magistrate Alan Davis —, Gov. Jack A. Markell and leaders from the General Assembly.

The exhibit showcases the history of the Justice of the Peace Court and features photographs and rare documents, including an arrest warrant signed by Caesar Rodney in 1767.

The Justice of the Peace is one of the oldest offices in Delaware, tracing its roots back through English and Dutch colonization to the 1600s. The role of the Justice of the Peace has evolved significantly over the years but has maintained its general purpose as a “middle term” between citizens and the Courts. Just as at their founding, Justices of the Peace are not required to be attorneys (except for the Chief Magistrate) but are to be “well-informed citizens” with “good sense and integrity.”

Until the newly created Justice of the Peace Court began its operations in 1966, Justices of the Peace were paid based on fees imposed. This and other standard practices that had existed for hundreds of years long had been criticized.

At the request of the Delaware Bar Association and others — and with the strong support of Gov. Charles L. Terry Jr. — legislation was enacted in 1965 and implemented in 1966 to reform the Justice of the Peace Court and bring it formally into the Delaware State Judiciary. As a result, Justices of the Peace — also often known as magistrates — became salaried employees.

While a law degree still is not required, Justices of the Peace as a result of joining the Delaware Judiciary began to receive training to provide for a more professional court that emphasizes procedural fairness and consistency in its rulings. Justices of the Peace currently are trained in criminal and civil law, as well as judicial ethics and other critical topics.

“We are not only celebrating 50 years of the statewide Justice of the Peace Court, but also centuries of judicial history and a spirit of reform in the name of justice for all that has not ceased since 1966,” said Chief Magistrate Davis.

In Fiscal Year 2015, the 60 Justices of the Peace across the state handled a total of 250,622 criminal cases and 32,381 civil cases. They also review approximately 99 percent of all search and arrest warrants authored in Delaware and act as committing magistrates on all crimes up to and including first-degree murder.

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