From the earliest settlement of the state, justices of the peace (JPs) were constitutional officers who served five-year terms as part-time magistrates. Each township in Indiana elected a JP, who did not have to be a lawyer.
Justices’ courts were designed to be easily accessible to every citizen, who could bring a claim without an attorney. JPs had countywide jurisdiction over marriages, petty crimes, civil cases involving real and personal property of small value, and, later, traffic violations. A justice also could issue “peace bonds,” similar to a temporary restraining order. Township constables worked in tandem with JPs to serve summonses and enforce court orders.
By 1939, the Marion County JP courts were so heavily used that two countywide common pleas courts were added to handle traffic and misdemeanor cases. In the 1950s, however, there were several attempts to reform or abolish the JP courts due to money scandals and the outdated nature of the system.
The General Assembly enacted legislation calling for statewide changes in the JP system in 1957 and 1959, but both laws were found unconstitutional. In response, Marion County common pleas, municipal, and criminal courts simply assumed more and more responsibilities previously exercised by JPs, leaving the justices primarily responsible only for marriages by the 1960s.
A 1970 statewide referendum removed JPs as constitutional officials and led to a 1975 state law that abolished all JP courts. In Marion County only, township small claims courts supervised by the circuit court replaced justice of the peace courts in every jurisdiction except Franklin Township, where voters rejected the change. Commonly referred to as “people’s courts,” small claims courts function much like the earlier JP courts and deal mainly with landlord-tenant disputes, unpaid bills, and property damage amounting to less than $1,500.