Justice of the Peace Courts (Illinois)

State: Illinois

The constitution of 1818 directed the Illinois General Assembly to appoint a competent number of justices of the peace in each county. These courts had jurisdiction over all debts in which the amount was under $100. The justice of the peace courts did not meet for regularly scheduled terms: instead, the justice specified when a trial would be held, allowing for speedy conflict resolution. Dissatisfied litigants could appeal their case to the circuit court. Since the justice of the peace could hold his court at any time, another of his functions was to hear criminal cases and hold over accused persons until the circuit court held its next term. The constable was the executing officer of the justice of the peace court.

The justice documented and maintained his own records. In 1826, the legislature provided for county commissioners to divide each county into districts with a minimum of two and maximum of eight. Qualified voters elected two justices of the peace in each district and three justices of the peace in the district that included the county seat. After 1835, county commissioners could increase the number of justices to any number to provide for a growing population. Justices of the peace held office for four-year terms. The legislature extended jurisdiction for justices of the peace periodically throughout the antebellum period. In the 1830s, the general assembly incorporated cities and designated the mayor as a justice of the peace within the city limits. The constitution of 1848 offered no substantive changes in the powers of the justice of the peace.

“Court Structure,” in Martha L. Benner and Cullom Davis et al., eds. The Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln: Complete Documentary Edition, 2d ed. (Springfield: Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, 2009), http://www.lawpracticeofabrahamlincoln.org/Reference.aspx?ref=Reference html files/Court Structure.html.