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  • Writer's pictureRochelle Gridley

The Justice of the Peace

Until the 1960s the Illinois courts included a Justice of the Peace at the Township level. I have long been curious about just what a Justice of the Peace (AKA police magistrate) was authorized to do and how they became qualified to be a Justice. I thought that JPs were simply the men who performed cheap weddings and settled small claims disputes.


According to the biographies printed for the candidates in 1933, the qualifications to run for JP were non existent. Apparently all that was needed was confirmation of male sex and lack of a criminal background. Of the nine men running for Justice in 1933, one had a law degree, one had some college education and the remainder had a high school education. Prior to the 1920s, the post was by appointment -- so qualifications were based on personal connections rather than ability or knowledge of the law. The 1933 candidates' previous work experience included farming, factory work, law enforcement, and insurance sales. Five justices were required to keep the criminal element under control in Bloomington Township. These men also formed the Township board and made decisions about how township money would be spent -- on roads, public health, and other township services.


A justice could lock you up for drunkedness, could sentence you on any misdemeanor and could issue a warrant for your arrest on the sworn oath of a sheriff. They could set the bond that would cause you to sit in jail while waiting for a trial in their court.


In October of 1938 Justice H.S. Munro locked up William Marshall of Covell for resisting and officer when he was being ejected from his home for failure to pay rent. Marshall was a WPA worker, so obviously not someone with connections or cash. Marshall, his wife and five children were all being evicted from the home. (The name of his landlord was never revealed.) His bond was set at $1000 or about $18,000 in today's economy. This was an extraordinary bond, as other criminals were bonded for $50 to $100. One other man had a bond of $1000 set by Justice Munro -- for writing a bad check for $10.


Decisions of Justices were not always published in the paper, but somehow the arrest of Mr. Marshall came to the attention of the State's Attorney, Bernard Wall. A writ was brought to bring Marshall before the court of Judge Chalmers Taylor. Taylor heard the writ immediately and dragged Munro over the coals. He demanded to see the papers and complaint filed against Marshall. When Munro handed Judge Taylor a handful of papers from his pocket, Judge Taylor asked him if he even knew what a complaint was, there being no complaint in the papers Munro presented. At this time, Munro had been a JP for about ten years.


Taylor was astounded at the actions taken by Munro -- Marshall had been thrown in jail without a hearing and had been given no opportunity to see an attorney. Munro had failed to inform the State's Attorney that a man was being held in jail, another infraction of his duties. Mr. Marshall had to be transferred to the hospital due to heart problems that came up while he was being held in the jail, and he could not appear in court.


Although Munro was brought up on malfeasance charges in connection with the illegal arrest of Williams, the results of the charges could not be located in the Pantagraph. The trial was delayed twice due to Mr. Munro's ill health, but he continued to work as a JP despite this illness. Munro continued to serve as a JP until his sudden death in 1943.



Judge Chalmer Taylor presiding over a naturalization ceremony in the Joseph Fifer Courtroom.

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