How to Become a Justice of the Peace in 5 Steps

Research what it takes to become a justice of the peace. Learn about job duties, education requirements, additional training and salary to find out if this is the career for you. Schools offering Juris Doctor degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Does a Justice of the Peace Do?

A justice of the peace presides over small claims court, generally at the local or state. You will be responsible for issuing orders and decisions in court cases. As a justice of the peace, you would likely see many cases involving traffic violations, petty theft, and misdemeanors. It is also possible that you would preside over many pre-trial hearings, which mainly involve the lawyers, plaintiffs, and defendants coming before the judge to share information. Take a look at the following chart for an overview of how to enter this field.

Degree Required Juris Doctor preferred
Education Field of Study Law
Training Required Internship or externship prior to judgeship recommended, on-the-job training for new judgeship required
Key Responsibilities Listen to arguments during hearing, read motions and pleas, rule on evidence admissibility, award damages or compensation
Job Growth (2014-2024) 1% (for all judges, magistrate judges, and magistrates)*
Median Salary (2015) $126,930 (for all judges, magistrate judges, and magistrates)*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

What Is a Justice of the Peace?

A justice of the peace, also referred to as a county court judge or magistrate, is a jurist who issues orders and decisions mostly in lower-level cases. Misdemeanors, traffic violations, pre-trial hearings and small claims make up most of your docket, although you might be allowed to handle contract, probate and domestic relations cases in some states. Your duties include reading motions and pleas; ruling on evidence admissibility; listening to arguments during hearings; enforcing procedural rules; issuing jury instructions; issuing rulings; awarding damages or compensation; and writing decisions.

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

As of 2009 about 40 U.S. states would permit you to hold a judgeship with limited-jurisdiction if you didn't have a law degree. In most of those instances you need work experience and a bachelor's degree, possibly in a relevant subject such as legal studies.

A bachelor's degree program in legal studies should teach you the basics of legal procedures and the structure of the U.S. legal system while helping you develop your skills in legal research, analysis and writing. Course topics might include rules of evidence, civil law, criminal law and the history of American law.

Step 2: Consider a Law Degree

Whether by appointment or election, you have a better chance of becoming a judge if you're a lawyer. Becoming a lawyer entails earning a Juris Doctor (JD) degree and passing your state's bar exam. In your first year of a JD program, you examine legal theory and develop competencies as a lawyer. You study multiple areas of law including contracts, property, torts, and constitutional law. In the second, third and fourth years you study specialties of your choice, such as tax law, environmental law or intellectual property law.

Step 3: Accumulate Experience

Internships are one possible avenue for gaining experience. Many bachelor's degree programs in legal studies and most JD programs include an internship or externship. Your other options depend on the education path you followed. If you earned a bachelor's degree you could work as a paralegal at a law firm or as clerical support worker in the local or state court system. If you earned a law degree you could work for a law firm, the district attorney's office, the public defender's office or as a clerk to a sitting judge.

Step 4: Pursue a Judgeship

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that approximately 29,700 judges, magistrate judges and magistrates were employed at the local and state level in 2014 ( Dedicated figures for justices of the peace weren't available. Employment was projected to reach 29,900 for judges in general over the 2014-2024 decade. You may have a long wait for an opening and will have to be vigilant. Turnover is low in judgeships, and the prestige of holding one assures keen competition for them. As of May 2015 you could have earned a median annual salary of $126,930.

Step 5: Consider Joining a Professional Association

Arizona, Massachusetts, Oregon and Texas are among the states that have special associations for justices of the peace. Membership can benefit you in two ways. One, they may provide information on vacancies. Two, they might sponsor workshops, seminars and guest speakers, through which you can meet continuing education requirements, if any, and help fulfill your duties by filling gaps in your knowledge.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

Because many judges earn law degrees, you could also considering pursuing a job as a type of lawyer. There are many types of law you could choose to practice. As a marriage and family lawyer, you would likely deal with many divorce and custody cases. Lawyers who work in taxation law would like be hired by individuals and corporations to help navigate complex tax rules and laws. If you chose not to go to law school, you could also find work as a mediator or arbitrator with only a bachelor's degree.

To continue researching, browse degree options below for course curriculum, prerequisites and financial aid information. Or, learn more about the subject by reading the related articles below:

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