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When I Was Justice Of The Peace

Before the California Judicial Council was voted in by the state legislature, the local judge was a justice of the peace and was known to the people as a JP. He would be a local man elected to office by the voters of the district. He was supposed to handle all minor legal matters. In addition, he was often called on to settle many matters among people that were too small to take to a lawyer but were of very real importance to the people concerned. He had a constable at his side and an outside man to serve papers and occasionally arrest someone.

The salary in the 70s was pretty small. The judge got as much as $30 a month and the constable got less than that. But he was paid extra for serving papers. There were a few automobiles, so there were no serious traffic problems which came before me. Livestock ran in the road at will.

One of the early and most well-known judges in Mendocino County owned a pig that ran around town and did once in a while get into somebody's yard. The town dogs chewed her up at times but they were unable to daunt her spirit or stop her marauding. She would raise a litter of piglets every year and in the fall she knew just when acorns began falling and would lead her family to the woods, not to return until springtime.

In later years animals including chickens disappeared from the highways and were no longer a problem.

When I became Justice of the peace sawmills were starting to build up and many families moved into the Valley to work in them. Some of those people were often a problem. One man used to beat his wife about every payday and the neighbors complained to me about it. But there was little I could do.

One day this man got drunker than usual and really raised a fuss. He beat up his wife pretty badly and was dragging her around by the hair. The children, all quite small, ran screaming to the neighbors and they of course became very upset.

The wife soon came in to sign a complaint. She had a fine black eye and numerous bruises. He had kicked her several times while he held her down. She looked pretty tough. The husband was brought into court and was given probation after a few days in jail. Then the wife had a fit. She said, “But I didn't want him put in jail.” I've often thought since then that she and others in like cases enjoyed these family quarrels and the attendant excitement and attention because it gave them an outlet for their emotions. But sometimes they didn't like the outcome.

We had a good many of those episodes and sometimes the wife would be at fault. A few times the wife got into jail herself. It took some days in jail and many lectures to convince those people that they couldn't disturb their neighbors and scare their children. In general, they quieted down and held no grudge afterward. It seemed like they realized that the time might come when they would need a friend in the court system.

One day a lady called in and said, “There is a man laying in my front yard and he may be dead.” The officer was off duty that day but I knew where to find hiem. We went down and the man was was there and he was alive and breathing although not very noticeably. The officer tapped the man lightly on the hand with no results. The third time he tapped a little harder and the man opened one eye and said, “Quit that.”

He smelled very bad but it was over the hill to the jailhouse with him. We transferred him to the sergeant's car at the top of the mountain and started hurriedly to return. I don't think the sergeant ever forgave us. It was a warm day. Later we found that this man had a criminal record and it was pretty bad.

We had many cases involving too much drinking and many of those cases the children were the losers although the county lost as well because they had no money to pay for fines, so they had to go to jail where the taxpayer picked up the tab. Sometimes probation worked but that wasn't very often. Many of those drunks that were sent to jail for a short time didn't seem to mind at all. It meant a rest, a few free meals, and they didn't have to go anywhere.

I often thought it bothered me more than it did them. I surely hated to shut a man up in jail for a few days. But sometimes everybody was satisfied with that. One time in the Ukiah court the officers brought in a man evidently not of American ancestry. The boys were little put out with him as he persisted in getting drunk and sleeping under the warehouses. They were afraid that he would either get run over or he would set a fire. One Friday I asked him if he was a national and he said, “Judge, I'm a Navajo Indian.” His home was in Arizona so I told him I thought he should go back home and gave him a suspended sentence with probation.

On Monday morning the boys came to court and told me, “Well we have your Navajo friend here.” I asked him why he hadn't started for Arizona and he replied, “I met another friend, Judge.”


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