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.

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

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