Supreme Court backs non-lawyer justice of the peaces
The Nevada Supreme Court Wednesday issued an opinion serving notice that a conviction in lower courts won’t be thrown out just because the Justice of the Peace didn’t have a law degree.
The issue was raised in an Elko felony DUI case but was closely watched in Carson City where justices Robey Willis and John Tatro are both non-lawyers.
Bob Goodson of Elko was charged with felony DUI after a third arrest. But one of his previous misdemeanor DUI convictions resulted from a trial before a justice who was not a lawyer. He appealed the felony conviction, arguing that conviction was unconstitutional because the judge wasn’t a lawyer.
The opinion issued in writing Wednesday says that argument hasn’t sold before and won’t sell now in Nevada where many rural justices and municipal judges are non-lawyers.
“I certainly agree with that decision,” said Carson District Attorney Noel Waters. “In the vast majority of cases JPs have got to deal with there’s a higher premium put on common sense and fairness than the degree. It also reflects the citizen view of the justice court as the people’s court.
Waters said lay judges in Nevada have a long and excellent record and that he’s glad the Supreme Court supports their authority.
Goodson cited no error in his 1997 trial except that the judge wasn’t a lawyer.
The opinion, however, points out Nevada’s Legislature has decided Justices of the Peace don’t have to be lawyers except in Clark and Washoe counties.
The three-member panel of Bill Maupin, Miriam Shearing and Nancy Becker agreed Nevada’s system doesn’t contradict U.S. Supreme Court rulings involving non-lawyer judges and doesn’t violate either due process or equal protection guarantees of the U.S. Constitution.
“We therefore conclude that it is not a matter of federal constitutional concern whether Nevada justices of the peace who preside over criminal trials are attorneys,” the opinion says.
It says that, in previous rulings, “this court has expressed great satisfaction with Nevada’s cadre of lay judges and discussed at length the need for and advantages of such judges.”
“That discussion applies as well to this case and the issue before us,” the opinion says. “We conclude that it is constitutional for non-lawyer justices of the peace, instructed pursuant to statutory mandates, to preside over criminal misdemeanor trials.”
They upheld Goodson’s felony DUI conviction and sentence of a minimum one year in prison and a $2,000 fine.