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History of Oregon Justice Courts

    Justice Courts originated in England out of the power struggle between the centralized authority of the King and the local authority of the Sheriff.  Attempting to limit the Sheriff's powers, King Richard III (Richard the Lion-hearted, 1125) assigned knights in each county ("shires") to assume a greater role in keeping the peace.

     In later years, Parliament increased this role, which, at first, had been more policing, to expand the Justice of the Peace powers to judicial and administrative authority.  By 1361, the job had acquired the title of "justices of the peace" (the King's peace) and they were authorized by statute to hold regular sessions of court and to try minor cases.

      Over the years, their powers were expanded to include administration of regulatory economic legislation.  They often fixed local wages, regulated food supplies, built and controlled roads and bridges, and undertook to provide and supervise locally those services mandated by the Crown and by Parliament for the welfare of the county, much like county commissioners today.  This power was eliminated with the introduction of elected county councils in the 1800s and Justice Court began to lose their authority to higher courts and administrative bodies.  

     Justice Courts were established in the British colonies in North America, but with the founding of the United States, they evolved to hearing disputes in addition to minor criminal complaints.  They were paid for the job, unlike the Justices of the Peace in England.  As Jacksonian democracy spread, state legislatures provided for the election of JPs.  In England, the justice courts were tools of centralizing political power, but in America, they had becomes a tool of local democracy.

      In Oregon, Justice Courts originated with the Hudson's Bay Company, which had governing authority over the greater Oregon Country (which included what is now British Columbia, Washington, Idaho, and parts of Montana), with headquarters established at Fort Vancouver under John McLoughlin in 1824.  It was  a self governing organization, operating under a license from the British government.   An Act of Parliament of July, 1821 extended the laws of Upper Canada (English Canada) to British subjects residing in the Oregon Country, and Justices of the Peace were appointed for the area.

        American fur traders, farmers, and other immigrants moved to Oregon and, on July 5, 1843, a Methodist minister, Jason Lee, and his neighbors, called for a meeting at Champoeg, near what is now Wilsonville in the Willamette Valley.  They drew up a compact for governing the Oregon Country ("the Wolf Pact").  Among other things, the compact adopted the laws of Iowa, which included a judicial system and provided for Justice Courts.  The Pact recognized the already existing authority of the Hudson's Bay Company Justices of the Peace, sheriffs, constables, and other judicial officials.

      In 1849, Britain and the United States made a treaty, which partitioned the Oregon Country along the 49th parallel of latitude, and set the international boundary between what is now British Columbia and the new Oregon Territory of the United States.  Congress continued the laws of the provisional government, but specifically maintained the authority of the existing Justice Courts.  

      In 1851, the first Legislature provided for the local election of Justices of the Peace and for civil jurisdiction.  The voters in each precinct in Oregon's twelve counties could elect at least one, but not more than three justices.  Precincts were much larger then than now.

     In 1854, the territorial legislature created Tillamook County, and the Governor appointed a Justice of the Peace for the Nehalem, Hoquarton, and Nestucca precincts of the new county.   In the first county wide election, new justices were elected. 

    In 1857, Oregon voters approved a state Constitution, in preparation for statehood (in 1859).  That Constitution, which is still in effect, provided for the election of Justices of the Peace.  Justices of the Peace are considered state judges, though the counties provide for the operation of the court and pay the judge's salary. 

    The Nestucca justice court was consolidated with the Tillamook (formerly Hoquarton) justice court in the 1880s, and the Nehalem justice court was consolidated with the Tillamook justice court in the first decade of the 1900s. 

    In Tillamook, the Justice of the Peace retained jurisdiction over criminal misdemeanor cases until the new District Court was established in 1987.  Later, the District Court was merged into the Circuit Court.  Tillamook County did not have a resident Circuit Court Judge until the late 1950s.  Until then, Circuit Judges "rode the circuit" and Circuit Court only convened sporadically.  The Justice of the Peace would arraign persons charged with felonies and conduct preliminary hearings for those defendants.  

(Most of this information provided by the Honorable Robert Triska, retired Justice of the Peace for Linn County, and the Oregon Justices of the Peace Association.)

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