The Law West of the Trinity

Our courts are a mess. Trials drag on, criminals go free, lawyers cost too much, judges ignore common sense. Can justice still work? Here’s a place where it does.

March 1980By Comments

Ramón Espinosa needed help and needed it right now. A few days earlier he had telephoned his niece Carmelina, and her eight-year-old daughter had answered, giggling and taunting and refusing to call her mother until Ramón asked in English, which he cannot speak. It was not, Ramón thought sadly, proper respect for elders, and when the child finally tired of the game and yielded the phone to her mother, Ramón told Carmelina she wasn’t raising her daughter right. Furious, she spat insults at him in Spanish and hung up. The incident might have been forgotten except that three days later the Immigration Service showed up at Carmelina’s West Dallas cottage to seize her sister Rosa, an indocumentada. Carmelina had decided Ramón had tipped off the authorities, and now the family was choosing up sides for a vendetta. Already her brother Alberto had called Ramón to threaten that he was going to break down the old man’s door and dance on him. There was only one thing to do. Ramón went to see Jack Richburg.

Anne Hunter needed help too. She had just moved to Dallas. Her first weekend in town she had signed a contract for a small house. Now the deal was closed, but she couldn’t move in: a tenant in the house, her house, refused to leave. She had gone to a lawyer, but he wanted $1000. So she too went to go see Jack Richburg.

Jack Richburg is not a lawyer. Nor is he a social worker—at least not officially. Like his father before him, he is a “justice of the peace”. It is a profession that, despite its noble origins in fourteenth century England, has fallen into disrepute. The term “Justice of the Peace” conjures up images of hurry-up weddings and roadside trials where old cottagers in nightshirts exact midnight tributes from passing motorists. In Texas, judicial reformers have been trying to get rid of JPs for half a century. The infamous Judge Roy Bean of Langtry was a JP around the turn of the century, and those who want to do away with the breed often cite him as a prototype: ignorant in the ways of the law, tyrannical, and corrupt. His real was the vast semidesert west of the Pecos River; Jack Richburg’s domain—the aging, crowded neighborhoods of Oak Cliff—is about as different from Beans as can be. So is the way he runs his court. But Richburg has one thing in common with his notorious predecessor: people come to his court because they have nowhere else to go.

Lawyers call JP court “the people’s court.” They usually say it with a sneer: lawyers do not like JP courts at all. The justice himself does not have to be a lawyer, and indeed most (in Texas, 855 of 950) are not. Lawyers instinctively recognize the threat to their professional status posed by the underlying premise of JP courts: that justice can be dispensed as well through common sense as through specialized knowledge. Furthermore, in most JP cases so little is at stake, in monetary terms at least, that hiring a lawyer makes no financial sense. The majority of Jack Richburg’s day is taken up with landlord-tenant disputes over rent and deposits, truancy cases, hot-check fines, damage suits under $500, and quarrels between neighbors or family members or lovers. There are no Ford Pinto cases here, no IBM antitrust cases, no Cullen Davis murder trials, nothing to catch the fancy or swell the bank account of a lawyer. In short, what goes on in JP court is of little importance to anyone except the parties involved.

But to them, whatever it is that has brought them to court is of the utmost importance. It is too small for lawyers but too large to be ignored. It means shelter, safety, freedom, vindication. At a time when most of the legal system is being criticized for being ponderous, technical, inaccessible, and out of touch, an urban JP court like Jack Richburg’s functions the way it is supposed to: it provides a remedy for people who otherwise have none except retribution. It keeps the peace.

Outside the Oak Cliff branch courthouse it is an unseasonably warm January day, but inside, the atmosphere is seasonless and sterile. The building, a squat rectangle of gray brick, dates from the early sixties, when Texas court house architecture was at its nadir and the fashion was to screen windows with alternating bricks and spaces. If the intent was to suggest seediness, it was spectacularly successful. On the walls of the courtroom the pictures—Washington, Lincoln, Jack Richburg’s father—and even the American and Texas flags seem old and faded. No sunshine penetrates to illuminate the faces of the thirty or so people, most of them woman, sitting on the pew like benches. The group reflects the mixed character of Oak Cliff, one of Dallas’s few integrated residential areas. Only one of the men is wearing a coat and tie; it develops later that he is a prosecutor from the DA’s office. One woman is in a dress and heels; she turns out to be a landlord. There are two teenagers, both white: a frightened 14-year-old girl with sad puppy eyes, and a skinny boy with shoulder-length hair who looks 16 when he smiles and 25 when he doesn’t. They are truants.

Court begins at nine o’clock, without an oyez or any other formality. No one is asked to rise when Richburg enters the courtroom, and no one does. He is wearing a navy-blue suit, without a judicial black robe. He does not wield a gavel, but the atmosphere is somber nevertheless. Some of the people sitting a few feet away will be displaced from their homes today, others will pay fines, a few will go to jail. It is unlikely that any of the people summoned here have the slightest understanding of the difference in power and stature between justice courts and the district court downtown; all that matters to them is that Richburg, for better or worse, personifies the immense power of the state and the law over their lives.

Ramón Espinosa’s is the first case. His complaint—that his niece’s family is unfairly accusing him of causing Rosa’s deportation—would be summarily tossed out of court by highbrow judges who know that the legal system is designed to right wrongs, not prevent them. In effect, he would be told to come back after he’s been beaten up. But one of the virtues of JP court is an all-purpose remedy known as peace bond. Anyone whose person or property has been threatened may try to put his antagonist under a peace bond for a year; during that time even a threat can land the violator in jail. Not all JPs like to use peace bonds—Justices are, after all, elected officials, and no politician wants to make enemies by involving himself in personal quarrels—but Richburg is bound by family precedent. Though his father averaged 350 peace bonds a month, he stayed in office 29 years before yielding the bench to his son in 1973. The word spread on the street: if you’ve got trouble and don’t want it, go see Judge Richburg.

A good JP has to have some of the attributes of a good poker player: he has to know who is lying and who is telling the truth, and he has to be able to bluff a little himself. Listening to Ramón’s story, related by an interpreter the old man had brought along, Richburg struggled awhile with the family tree and who was on what side, then broke in.

“This fight is over,” he announced in authoritative judicial tones. “If you say it isn’t over, I’ll end it.” That was pure bluff, of course; he had no power to do anything except grant Ramón’s request for a peace bond. But none of the Espinosa clan knew that. Something, perhaps the passion in the old man’s voice evident even in a language Richburg does not know, had tipped him off that the situation could be defused. All parties nodded solemnly at his outburst; he had guessed right. “Your honor,” the interpreter said, “all Mr. Espinosa really wants is to take an oath before you and his family that he didn’t call Immigration.” Richburg nodded, and Ramón began his halting recitation. He never finished. There were embraces, tears; case closed.

Roy Bean gave Texas JPs a bad name, but the real blame goes to whoever dreamed up a salary system that was blind to human nature. For 137 years many justices of the peace operated under the fee system: their salaries came from the fines they collected. Any JP moved to find an accused speeder innocent had only to reflect that such a ruling would be equivalent to taking $4 out of his wallet and handing it to the stranger across the desk. But speeders were only part of the problem. In counties with more than one JP, the justices competed against each other for case filings. Since evictions and misdemeanor crimes constituted the bulk of the court’s nontraffic business, landlords and prosecutors could usually count on friendly treatment. When a JP got too insistent on giving defendants their just due, DAs and lessors starved the uncooperative magistrate out of office by refusing to file cases in his court. No cases, no fees, no salary.

In theory all this changed in 1973 when a constitutional amendment made JPs hand their revenue over to the county and in turn gave the county the power to set justices’ salaries. But out in the boondocks, where the major business of JP courts remains traffic cases, the reform has had scant effect. Rural county commissioners know exactly how much the JP contributes to county coffers, and if he wants a raise or another clerk, he is told to bring in more revenue. This is no small business. In 1978, JP courts reported pouring $38 million into county treasuries, and that’s with only 77 per cent of the justices reporting. Since two of every three cases filed in justice courts statewide are traffic offenses, it’s clear that the Arabs aren’t the only ones getting rich off highway driving. In some rural counties the haul from traffic fines is astounding. In Sterling County, northwest of San Angelo, for example, JPs take in $62 annually for every person in the county (Dallas JPs collect 80 cents). In the trans-Pecos along Interstate 10, Culberson and Hudspeth counties get a fifth of their income from JP courts.

The system forces the JP to rely on the lawman for his sustenance—an ironic twist, since English kings originated the office as a way of breaking the power and independence of local sheriffs. Legislative committees dating back to 1933 have issued reports calling for reform, but JPs and their influential friends resisted every effort until the late sixties, when the federal Department of Transportation began making noises about withholding Texas highway funds. In 1969 the Legislature put JPs under the less-than-strict scrutiny of the state Commission on Judicial Conduct, and two years later lawmakers started requiring all new nonlawyer JPs to complete forty hours of special training. That and the abolition of the fee system satisfied the feds, but a new and more serious threat was on the horizon: the legal profession. In 1972 an elite committee named by the chief justice of the state Supreme Court recommended abolishing JP courts. Armed with statistics—one in four Texas JPs had not completed high school; only 34 of more than 900 were lawyers—the State Bar carried the proposals to the 1973 Legislature. But the JPs were ready, and the bar suffered a rare defeat. The fight was renewed, with the same result, during the 1974 Constitutional Convention. By the end of the decade the momentum had swung the other way: the 1977 Legislature actually enlarged the maximum JP civil jurisdiction from $200 to $500.

But discontent with JPs continues. The Commission on Judicial Conduct says that more complaints are lodged against JPs than any other kind of judge. Last year three JPs were indicted on felony charges, and a handful more were reprimanded for skimming fines by charging, say, $50 and recording only $40 in the ledger. There are occasional reports of rural JPs exceeding their authority by trying cases involving title to land, or sums far in excess of $500. But the truly outlandish tales are rare today. Training and turnover have all but eliminated JPs like the Austin justice, now deceased, who was asked to marry a white woman and a Mexican American man. He didn’t much like the idea, the story goes, but he went ahead with the ceremony. A month later the woman returned, moaning that she’d made a terrible mistake. Could he give her a divorce? Legally the answer was no—that’s for district courts to decide—but the JP simply reached into his desk, pulled out the marriage license, which he had deliberately neglected to send to the courthouse, and shredded it.

The Commission on Judicial Conduct has never heard of Jack Richburg—a good sign—nor are they likely to. He runs his court by the book. More precisely, by two books. One is a thick blue volume Richburg shows off with evident pride. It is called the Justice Court Deskbook and contains every law and practice a JP is likely to have to know. The old-timers sneer at it—the work is a recent product of the new JP training center they hate—but to Richburg it is a symbol of the growing professionalism of his calling. The other book is a grimy, worn spiral directory that sits on his secretary’s desk. Inside is the name and description of every social-welfare agency in Dallas County.

Sarah Street, whose case follows Ramón Espinosa’s, doesn’t know it, but she will have to look to the second book for help. Street is a woman of too many years and too few teeth. Standing beside her is her landlord, a much younger woman in a black dress and diamond earrings, who looks as though she were on her way to a cocktail party. Her apartment leases for $141 a month, but the federal government covers $117 of that, leaving only $24 to be paid by Street—still too much, apparently, for this is an eviction suit. The tenant tell a long, rambling story: she’s been sick (to judge by excuses offered in Richburg’s court, Oak Cliff is second only to Cambodia in incidence of disease); she doesn’t get mail at home; she went to the HUD office for help, but the director wouldn’t see her. But the law, as Richburg explains, offers no solace. If the rent hasn’t been paid and the landlord has delivered written notice, he has no choice other than eviction. “I’m going to enter judgment for the plaintiff,” he says, “but if you’ll step around to my office, we’ll put you in touch with an agency that can find you a place to stay. And we’ll call that HUD director and see if we can’t straighten him out.”

As the day goes on, it becomes clear that Richburg is less an adjudicator than a social worker with power. In virtually every case the law is no mystery; it is the facts that are unclear. In peace bond hearings, eviction suits, even in hot-check cases, he uses his training as a former investigator with the Dallas DA’s office to probe deeper into the circumstances. Sometimes the truth can be startlingly unexpected. Maggie Williams, a sixty-year-old widow seeking a peace bond against Ivory Joe Pate, relates how Pate, a strapping young man in his twenties, harasses her at night by throwing rocks at her window and crawling on her roof. “He lives on the street, he don’t have no job, he’s bad,” she says. As if to confirm every word, Pate slams his cap against the front of the judge’s bench and starts muttering under his breath. Richburg rebukes him sharply, picks up the phone, and calls for a constable to come upstairs in case Pate needs to be restrained by force. After waiting a few minutes for Pate to cool off, Richburg starts asking questions: When did her husband die? September. This September? Yes. When did the harassment start? Immediately. Nothing earlier? No. Had she been seeing a doctor? Yes. Taking medicine? Yes. The case is turning around now. Suddenly it is apparent that the woman, lonely and lost, is imagining everything. A few questions of Pate—he mentions a steady nighttime job—make up the judge’s mind. No bond. But, as in the Espinosa case, he runs a bluff. “This won’t be happening anymore,” he tells the woman. “It’s over.” She walks out smiling; she thinks she’s won.

More peace bonds. After a while they fall into categories: love triangles, jilted lovers, mother disapproving of daughter’s boyfriend, neighbors that even good fences couldn’t help. A woman shows up at her ex-husbands house at three in the morning challenging the current wife, “If you love him, you’ll fight.” Wife Two wants a peace bond, but the questioning brings out that she won’t let her predecessor talk to the husband, not even about the serious problems Wife One is having with her son from the terminated marriage. No bond, and lectures to both women. Another woman wants protection from her former boyfriend. He’d lent her money to buy Christmas presents for her children, then they’d had a fight over repaying the loan. She kicked him out, he seized the presents; later he threatened to burn her house down. It takes a lot to astonish an urban JP, but this case succeeded: “You mean you repo’d the kids’ Christmas presents?” Richburg asked, wide-eyed. Bond granted. A woman wants a peace bond against her daughter’s ex-boyfriend, who, the mother asserts, is a heroin addict. “He hit her up the side of the head with a pool cue, and she don’t want to go with him no more,” she says. But Richburg has heard it all before. When did that happen, he wants to know. Six months ago. And when did they have their last date? Night before last. “That’s what I thought,” he tells her. “Your problem is with your daughter, not him.” No bond.

After hearing the last of the peace bonds, Richburg turns to misdemeanor hot-check cases. There is nothing to do here but crank out the fines, but the process matters a great deal to the merchants involved. If they had to bring charges in district court, the arrest warrant would join 33,000 other in the sheriff’s pile. Once it was served and the defendant was slapped in jail, he would get out on bond (“The jail makes more money in a day than Clint Murchison,” Richburg says), and it would be months before the case came to trial. By that time the clerk who took the check would have moved on long ago—no witness, no case. In JP court the entire process takes only a few weeks, no one goes to jail, and most of the time the defendant makes the check good. Today Richburg hands out small fines of $10 to those who plead guilty but have paid off their checks, and a bigger one of $50 to a defendant who pleads innocent on the grounds that he doesn’t keep a checkbook balance.

The truants are next. One does not have to sit long in JP court before hearing another improbably tale of woe. This time it comes from the mother of the sad-eyed girl (parents can be fined for failing to send their children to school). The girl has been present 56 days, absent 63 days, according to school records; her mother attributes it to asthma. Has she been to a doctor, Richburg wants to know. No. Why not? The family doctor is in Fort Worth. How long have they lived here? Thirteen years. Richburg shakes his head, orders them to find a Dallas doctor. It is a typical case; if there is any lesson that can be learned from a day in JP court, it is that the sins of the parent are suffered by the children.

On to the mundane: Richburg picks up a foot-high stack of brown folders and begins reading off the names of defendants in eviction suits. Almost no one answers; they have in all likelihood already moved out. One man does answer when his name is called. It is Anne Hunter’s unwanted tenant, the man who is living in the house she bought.

Another lesson about JP court: nothing stays mundane for long. The tenant, a workingman in a blue polyester jump suit, is indignant. He insists he has a right to the house and has, he says, a document to prove it. He had signed a contract for the property long before Hunter came to town, but his loan had fallen through. In the meantime, his realtor had worked out an agreement that let him lease the house for six months while he tried to scrape up the money elsewhere. He had overlooked, however, that realtors represent sellers, not buyers. When Anne Hunter showed up, looking for a house, the agent knew just the place. She signed a contract and this time the deal went through. The house was hers. But the tenant’s six months weren’t up yet.

What is the legal effect of the crucial piece of paper? For the first and only time that day, the outcome of a case would rest upon knowledge of the law. Or would it? Richburg listens to both sides and studies the agreement. He shrugs; it is time for another bluff. “I’m going to rule for the plaintiff Hunter,” he says. “I base my decision on paragraph eight of the limited-occupancy agreement.”
Apparently that was satisfactory. But not even John Marshall himself could have found anything in paragraph eight that remotely applied to the case. Maybe a lawyer JP would have come up with a different answer. Maybe the outcome was a perversion of the law. But it was not a perversion of justice. Two people wanted one house; one had to lose. Is it not better, ultimately, that the one who had already squandered his chance suffer the loss? It is certainly better for the seller, and it is probably better for society as a whole. The outcome was JP justice at its best: common sense undiluted by law, the same formula Jack Richburg’s father followed for 29 years.

Folks used to call Bill Richburg “the law west of the Trinity”—notwithstanding the river’s west-to-east course through Dallas—and though the comparison with Roy Bean’s absolute rule west of the Pecos was not far from the mark, Richburg hated it. “Roy Bean was a tyrant,” he would grump. “I like to help people.”

During three decades in office, from 1944 until his son succeeded him on New Year’s Day, 1973, Richburg probably prevented more crimes of violence than the Dallas Police Department. He handed out 125,000 peace bonds, every one of them representing a volatile situation, and the vast majority of the bonds ended whatever quarrel was at issue. Many of his rulings were accompanied by lectures on parental duty, getting a job, responsibility. The precinct lines were different then; Richburg’s dominion extended far into South Dallas, the heart of the black community. He kept his court open seven days a week, and on Saturdays and Sundays the courtroom overflowed and the halls teemed with people seeking refuge. Some just came to hear secular sermons like the one Richburg preached to a man who had left his wife and four children, beating her up and stealing her welfare check as he departed. “You’re hurting your children and your legal wife and cheating us taxpayers,” Richburg said in a ringing voice, between puffs on one of the 25 cigars he smoked and chewed every day. “Every hungry child should be fed. I’m not going to allow anybody like you to starve your children just so you can live off another woman on welfare. You’re as strong as Cassius Clay, and you ought to be working and supporting your family. Go in my office and give her some money right now, and if you hurt her or those children, you’re going to jail.”

Richburg had no power, of course, to order the derelict husband to support his family. But he was dealing with people who weren’t sophisticated in the law, and he had a genius for mingling moral and legal obligations in a way that made them seem the same. It was, by today’s standards, a paternalistic system, and one that didn’t function exactly according to the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure or, for that matter, the United States Constitution. But when Richburg died last year, hundreds of black women came to his funeral and cried.

Every now and then a Richburg story showed up in the papers: the time he handed down a death sentence—on a rooster that had gaffed a child; the time on a hot summer day that he cooled off a sizzling family feud by sending out for ice cream; the time he emulated King Solomon, ending a quarrel over who owned a pig by ordering it barbecued and divided between the claimants.

Richburg was popular among Dallas’s politically conservative courthouse crowd because of his reputation for cracking down on welfare cheaters. Stories of welfare frauds would unfold in peace bond hearings as Richburg tried to find out what role money played in the inevitable love triangles. To reinforce his questioning, Richburg kept a “lie detector” in plain view on the raised bench. Actually it was just a tape recorder, one of the old-fashioned machines with a yellow light to indicate volume—the louder the volume, the faster the light would blink. But Richburg told peace bond litigants it was his lie detector, and as soon as he’d made up his mind who was telling the truth and who wasn’t, he’d turn the volume knob up at an appropriate time, the light would blink furiously, and the truth would come out. Richburg reported these confessed frauds to federal authorities, and in court he frequently railed against welfare cheats, but he knew too much of life in his precinct to be against welfare itself—something his downtown admirers never fully realized. “I’m not against the deserving getting welfare,” he said once. “Some ought to be getting it who aren’t. Some ought to be getting more than they do.”

Bill Richburg didn’t run for reelection in 1972, influenced in part, says his son, by the political woes of his friend, county judge Lew Sterrett, and in part by changing times. The elder Richburg would have snorted at JP deskbooks; he chided lawyers who brought lawbooks into his courtroom. He would not have taken kindly to the legal-aid and poverty lawyers who have been showing up more and more frequently in urban JP courts. There was a time when Richburg was one of three men in the county (Sheriff Bill Decker and homicide captain Will Fritz were the others) who could put a “hold” on anyone in jail, and every district judge in town would honor it by refusing to grant bail or a writ. In Richburg’s case the reason was usually to give a peace bond violator who had gotten only as far as making threats time to cool off. Those days are gone forever. Good riddance, perhaps, but when times change in some ways, they change in others as well: every Friday afternoon at five, Jack Richburg packs up his lawbooks, shuts the door on the courtroom where his father’s picture hangs, and closes up for the weekend.

The long day is coming to a close in Jack Richburg’s court. The last case is different—a jury trial over $47.50 in rent that a flea market owner says is owed him—and yet it is the same. The outcome is a matter of principle to both sides: the tenant says the roof leaked on his merchandise and the owner says the tenant stopped payment on a check. There have been threats of violence. Neither side has a lawyer. Richburg’s role is limited to helping both sides develop their cases; occasionally he interrupts, unprompted by an objection, to warn one side or the other about a gross violation of propriety, such as blatantly leading witnesses. His usual sensitivity to every nuance, unnecessary in a jury trial, is dormant: “I really don’t know how this will go,” he says in an aside while the jury is out. The jury, evidently, is not so ambivalent. They are back in ten minutes with a verdict for the owner.

The outcome is somewhat reassuring: after sitting in Richburg’s court for a day, one begins to wonder whether anyone in Dallas keeps a checkbook or pays rent on time or expects anyone else to. But the temptation to dismiss those who are summoned here as life’s losers, the wretched of the earth, is submerged in a flood of numbers. This year Richburg will make decisions in cases affecting about 25,000 people, enough to populate a city the size of Orange, too many to ignore.

The lingering question about JP courts, even those as professional as Jack Richburg’s is whether they are fair to the people they serve. There are those, notably in the legal profession, who cringe at the thought of a contested case where the judge is a layman and the opposing sides have no lawyers to carry their banners into battle. The specter of rights violated or ignored or overlooked cannot be dismissed lightly, and no doubt some cases, like the eviction of Anne Hunter’s unwanted tenant, are not decided according to law. But that is not the final answer. One could just as easily go to the county courthouse two miles away and find cases that are decided according to law but have little to do with justice. Criminals go free on technicalities; doctors win malpractice cases because no doctor can be found to testify against them.

Too often lawsuits turn out to be contests between lawyers, not real people. Lawyers can get so absorbed with precedent, procedure, and the adversary system that they lose sight of what is fair. Does it make sense for someone to lose a case because his lawyer failed to recite a magic incantation? The legal system has evolved into an institution that operates for the convenience of lawyers—except for JP courts.

That is, of course, precisely why the legal establishment wants to stamp them out. In fact what should happen is exactly the opposite: if anything, JP-type courts should have more responsibility. So many disputes—divorce, child custody, commitment for insanity or alcoholism, to name a few—could be better resolved by the methods of a Jack Richburg than by the skills of a lawyer. Where is the precedent for determining what is in the best interests of a child? Precedent is a myth; no case is truly similar to any other. Justice of the peace courts understand this; they are based on common sense, they work, and they work quickly. Perhaps it is too much to expect the rest of the legal system to function the same way, but the least it can do is leave what does work alone.

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