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Legal Blog

Our Jury System is Dying

Our Jury System is Dying

By Clay S. Conrad, Attorney

There is a decline in the percentage of cases going to jury trial  Attorneys have gradually adapted to measures that reduce the viability or availability of jury trials – from acceptance of responsibility credits for those who plead guilty, to judges who require expensive, time-consuming mediation prior to trial.  As the jury trial becomes rarer and more difficult to attain, we adapt to our environment. 

Too often we fail to recognize or object to procedures that raise the risk or cost of a jury trial.  These mechanisms (and there are more being added practically daily) have become part of our legal system.  Many legislators are not aware of the fact that the jury system is dying and many actually respond positively once aware of the facts. 

In the meantime, if we don’t make ourselves aware (and spread that awareness among others), we become part of this seemingly intractable problem.  It is time to break out of this rut and to object to those rules and procedures that act as a tax on the right to a trial by jury – while there are still those who remember why it is important.


Jury Trial or Court Trial in Justice of the Peace Court

Jury Trial or Court Trial in Justice of the Peace Court

By Richard Senasac, attorney

How do you try a Justice of the Peace case?  Whether you are having a jury trial or trial to the court, you need to remember that just saying something is so doesn’t mean the judge must believe it.

The court will inform you if you attempt to subpoena someone who you cannot.  You should arrange for this well ahead of time with the court.

There are also limits to the questions you can ask of witnesses.  You can’t have anyone testify about what someone else said.  If the other side tries to do this, you should object (point it out to the judge).  However, the judge’s ruling on things like this is final – do not argue with the judge.  “Contempt” is the power of the judge to have you thrown in jail.  You cannot talk about things not related to the lawsuit, no matter how angry something the defendant did makes you.  The court will make the Rules of Evidence and Rules of Civil Procedure available for review, though you are not expected to be as familiar with these as an attorney.


Which JP Court to File in and How to Complete Paperwork

Which JP Court to File in and How to Complete Paperwork

By Richard Senasac, Attorney

Which Justice of the Peace court should you file in?  If you file in the JP Precinct where the defendant lives or the business you are suing has its’ primary office, you should be okay.  You can also file in the Precinct where the “cause accrued.”  This means the place where the accident happened, the contract was signed or the issue being sued over occurred.  If this means there is more than one Precinct where the suit would be filed, you have your choice.  Once again, talk to the JP’s office to make sure you are in the right place.

When you file suit in JP court, the court will generally give you forms to fill out.  Do this as legibly and completely as possible.  There will be some charges from the court but these are much less than what is charged in other courts.  The court will set a trial date.  As opposed to the dozens of motions often filed in other courts, this is generally the next step in JP court.  Jury trials are available if you request it from the court but you must do this well ahead of time.  Make the court aware of your intent when you file or as soon after as possible. 

The next step is to have the defendant served.  The court will arrange for this (and charge you for it).  Service is the way the court officially makes sure the defendant knows he or she is being sued.  You can take no further action until this happens. 

Once the defendant has been served, he or she must file an answer.  An answer is a response to the suit denying the allegations and forcing the plaintiff to prove his or her case.  Even a letter to the court stating, “I did not do that,” or “That is not correct” is sufficient to serve as an answer.  You should always try to find the proper form of anything filed and adhere to that.  The answer must be filed with the court and a copy given to the plaintiff.  If no answer is filed, the case can be set for default judgment. 


What to do if you lose in Justice of the Peace Court

What to do if you lose in Justice of the Peace court

By Attorney Richard Senasac

If you lose your case in Justice of the Peace court, you can appeal.  You have 21 days from the date of the judgment to appeal.  Before you leave the court, you should ask the clerk for your appeal date.

The judge can require a $500 bond if the plaintiff appeals or twice the amount of the judgment if the defendant appeals.  You can make a cash deposit with the court, file a bond with a surety or a statement of inability to pay if you cannot afford the bond (note that the court will review statements of inability to pay and may deny them).

If an error is made in the appeal, you have seven days from the date of notice of the error to correct it.  If the appeal is perfected, meaning you have done everything needed, the case is transferred to the county court or county court-at-law.

The trial in the county court is a “trial de novo.”  This means there is no record from the JP court and you will be starting all over again.  If you do appeal, you should seriously consider hiring an appellate lawyer.  Contact a Hempstead Appellate Lawyer at 979-826-8484 or a Houston Appellate Lawyer at 281-597-8818.


How to sue in Justice of the Peace Courts

How to sue in Justice of the Peace Courts

By Richard Senasac, Attorney

Justice of the Peace Courts, as well as small claims or some municipal courts, are designed for people to use without having a lawyer.  They are also the only court where it is even vaguely safe to represent yourself.  The legal arena has many pitfalls that can trip up even experienced attorneys, let alone someone not versed in the law.

JP courts are purposefully streamlined to avoid much of this.  The costs of filing suit are also lower than in other courts and, if you cannot afford even these costs, you can ask the court to waive them by filing a statement of inability to pay.  The court can provide forms for this.

The first thing to know is that JPs largely make their own rules.  The law governing JP and small claims courts specifically exempts those courts from most of the rules by which other courts are governed.  The judge decides which rules to follow.  The reason for this is that JP courts are very limited in the cases they can hear.  Another reason is that, if you believe the JP has made a mistake in deciding your case, it is very easy to appeal.  All of this is designed to make the court far more user-friendly than other courts.

So, when can you go to JP court?  JP courts can hear cases of claims and debts of $10,000 or less in controversy.  They can hear evictions, suits forcing landlords to make repairs and for other statutory landlord-tenant remedies (too many and too complex to list here, but the remedy must still be for $10,000 or less).  They have jurisdiction (the right to hear cases) over Photographic Traffic Signal Enforcement (the stoplight cameras).  They cannot hear cases of divorce, anything to do with land ownership or land debts, slander or defamation or writs of injunctions (with limited exceptions such as writ of possession to enforce an eviction).

Talk to your local JP about what type of case you want to file and find out for sure if the JP court is right for you.


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