Earlier this month, I visited my 15th justice of the peace court in Harris County within the last two months. My pursuit of understanding the current landscape of eviction hearings has taken me many places: from the core of downtown Houston where I’ve called home, to towns across the county such as Spring, Humble, Baytown and Pasadena. Along the way, I’ve spoken with many presiding justices of the peace, observed how they operated their courtrooms and adjudicated their dockets differently, examined the different resources (or lack thereof) offered to folks in each court, and intently listened to the dishearteningly similar stories of tenants facing eviction across the county.
My most recent visit to the courthouse in Pasadena felt typical at first. I checked in with the bailiff and clerks, and got out my pen and notepad to begin documenting the court proceedings that day. Everything was running as usual, until I heard the Bailiff shout “all rise” followed by an unfamiliar name.
I thought to myself: “Who is this?” I was expecting to see elected Justice of the Peace Holly Williamson preside over the docket that day. We all sat down, and an unfamiliar judge informed us that he would be hearing the docket that day instead of Judge Williamson as she was out of town. He first called out to see if there were any conflicts of interest, as he is a practicing lawyer, and even reset one case as he had represented the plaintiff in the past.
Much like myself, I’m sure the folks in the courtroom that day were not expecting to have someone other than an official who they elected to serve as justice of the peace and adjudicate their cases that day. On the other hand, justices of the peace – like the rest of us – have circumstances that arise, whether they be planned or unplanned, where they need to take time off.
There were 63 cases heard that day, and 51 of decisions for the plaintiff or landlord, meaning the tenant was evicted. The other 12 cases were dismissed, or reset, by the request of the plaintiff or landlord. Many tenants appeared in court to make a statement about their case, but were visibly confused by how the visiting judge ran his court, prompting tenants to first “ask the plaintiff questions” after the plaintiff or landlord spoke, and discouraging tenants from making a statement if they hadn’t asked a question.
The judge later clarified to one tenant that he was intending to allow them to first, “cross-examine” the plaintiff-landlord before making their own statement in court. However, this was not communicated at the top of the docket to all parties, making for a court experience that was unnecessarily confusing for many defendants who are unfamiliar with court procedures. The manner in which he conducted court seemed to discourage tenants from making a statement in court – which they are entitled to – and impeded the delivery of justice by preventing proper discovery. Perhaps tenants had a defense they could raise against the other party, but they were silenced before they had the opportunity to.
Following this observation, I decided to look into the process for selecting a temporary justice of the peace, whether people who have a case during their absence are notified, and what standards that these substitute justices of the peace should maintain in the court they are overseeing to ensure that justice is delivered to those that have a hearing.
What is the process for selection of a temporary Justice of the Peace?
According to Texas’ Government Code, there are multiple people who can act as a justice of the peace temporarily if the sitting justice of the peace in that precinct is absent.
- Sec. 27.052 states that in the event of a vacancy, an absence, or if the sitting justice of the peace is “unable or unwilling” to perform their duties, “The nearest justice in the county may temporarily perform the duties of the office”
- Sec. 27.055 (a) states that if a justice is “disqualified, sick or absent” the parties in a civil case can agree on a person to try the case, and the parties fail to agree the justice of the peace or the county judge may appoint someone to try to case
- Sec 27.055 (b) states that if the sitting justice of the peace is unable to perform one of their official duties, for various reasons such as illness, absence, recusal or injury, the county judge may on their own motion appoint a temporary justice of the peace to the seat for the “duration of the absence”
- Sec. 27.055 (b) also states that the sitting justice of the peace may request that the county judge appoint another “qualified person” to take their place in a temporary absence
- A “qualified person” is considered someone who served as a justice of the peace, county judge or judge of a county court of law for at least four years and has not been convicted of a crime that involves “moral turpitude”
- Moreover, a person who is appointed as a temporary justice of the peace does not have to live in the county where the vacancy they are filling exists
How are people notified that their case will not be heard by the sitting Justice of the Peace?
Unfortunately, there is no rule in the Texas Government Code that explicitly states that parties in a civil case must be notified that their case will not be heard by the sitting justice of the peace.
The only rule in the Texas Government Code is that the visiting or temporary justice of the peace’s presence must be noted on the docket for the day. It does not specify whether this notation is circulated to the parties who have set hearings on the docket, or if it is simply for internal administrative purposes. (Sec. 27.055 (a))
What standard should visiting judges maintain?
The only rule pertaining to conduct of a temporary or visiting justice of the peace which the Texas Government Code specifies is that the visiting justice of the peace may not “make personnel decisions about, or significant changes in, the justice of the peace’s office.” A visiting justice of the peace may not make a “significant change” to the administrative operations of the justice of the peace office they are visiting, or to the staff of that justice of the peace office.
Why does all of this matter?
While it is important that a visiting justice of the peace must be a qualified individual, who may not make any operational changes to the court in which they are visiting, the vagueness in the Texas Government Code raises several questions about how a visiting justice may impact adjudication in the courtroom in which they are visiting, and if that affects the fairness in the rulings on cases such as evictions, which significantly impact the livelihood of the tenant.
There is an objection to a visiting judge that a party can file in justice of the peace court with the clerk if they do not want their case heard by a visiting judge. Unfortunately, without prior notice of a visiting judge for their docket, defendants may not have the chance to file this paperwork with the court in a timely manner. By filing this objection, the defendant-tenant can potentially gain more time if the justice of the peace will return within a certain time.
It is worth asking if it’s necessarily just that parties are having their cases heard by an official who is unelected and who, while may possess the qualifications as dictated by the law, might have been away from the bench for an extended period of time and may not be current on up to date best practices that are not specified in Texas law.
Furthermore, the appointment of these justices, whether it be by the acting justice of the peace, or the county judge, begs the question of how intentional each selection of substitute justices of the peace is. Visiting judges are selected from a list by the sitting justice of the peace in that precinct. In Harris County, this list is approved by officials from the county, and all of the sitting justices of the peace. These visiting judges possess the qualifications specified under Texas law, and the sitting justice of the peace may proclaim a preference of who they want to fill in the event of an absence in and it may be honored in a given day, but this may not always be the case.
The process for selecting a temporary justice of the peace, especially for extended absences which may arise, should be methodical, intentional, and transparent for the public – especially those who reside within the precinct.
We at Texas Housers believe that the most prudent approach to appointing substitute or temporary justices of the peace is to have transparency from the county on when a temporary justice of the peace is overseeing a court, ensuring that all parties are notified in advance, and for temporary justices of the peace to be up to date of TJCTC trainings and current administrative orders from the county and the state. The court notifying parties in advance of their docket could be accomplished through a local administrative rule adopted by the Harris County Justice Courts, or on a statewide level through an administrative order from the Supreme Court of Texas. In order to ensure compliance with TJCTC trainings for visiting justices, the Texas Criminal Court of Appeals, which sets the Rules of Judicial Education, must implement this requirement.
More transparency should also come from Harris County’s Office of Court Management towards the public as far as reporting substitute or visiting justices of the peace – as the county reports visiting district judges, they should also report visiting trial court judges as well.
After the hearing in Pasadena, I spoke with the JP who filled in for Judge Williamson, and he informed me that he used to preside over Court 8.1, but lost his re-election many years ago and since has been practicing law, and is the current municipal judge in a nearby suburb. Following some research, I learned that he was elected in the late 1970s, and was unseated sometime in the 1980s. The disheartening thing is, by the letter of the law, most landlord and tenant disputes can be adjudicated the exact same way that it was when he was last elected to the bench forty years ago.
This demonstrates not a flaw necessarily with visiting judges themselves, but rather the lack of progress made in our laws to enshrine a foundation of rights and protections for tenants. The law can be applied the same today as it was almost half a century earlier, and the need for urgent actions from our lawmakers at every level to establish tenant protections into state law and local ordinances in the face of an ongoing eviction crisis.
If a tenant is evicted, there is no asterisk that specifies it was handed down by a substitute judge; it is a permanent mark on that tenant’s record and a hurdle to secure housing for their extended future. The selection of visiting Justices of the Peace must be intentional and transparent, and tenants and landlords must be given full notice when their case is in the hands of a visiting Justice of the Peace, to ensure that there is no substitute for the standard of justice they receive on the day of their hearing.