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Public Post is a community reporting initiative using digital tools to report on cities and towns across Vermont.Public Post is the only resource that lets you browse and search documents across dozens of Vermont municipal websites in one place.Follow reporter Amy Kolb Noyes and #PublicPost on Twitter and read news from the Post below.

Just What Is A Justice Of The Peace, Anyway?

Guildhall is holding a runoff election for justice of the peace on Dec. 2. The town has five JPs, as determined by the top five vote-getters in the general election every two years. This year, however, there was a three-way tie for the two last seats.

The following warning was posted to the town's website this week:

On Tuesday, December 2, 2014, a runoff election will take place for two Justice of the Peace positions. This runoff is happening because, in the November General Election, there was a three-way tie vote between the following candidates: Casey Dowland (R), Kelly McLain (R), and Laura Wilson (I). (Valerie Foy (I), Elvina Allen (I), and Albert Tetreault (R) were the top three vote-getters in the November election, and they therefore won three positions outright.)

Justices of the peace are elected in November and take office the following February. Some towns struggle to get enough JP candidates on the ballot, while other towns have hotly contested races for the position. The number of JPs in a given town is determined by population. This all begs the question, "Just what is a justice of the peace, anyway?"

First off, in the interest of full disclosure, I'll tell you that I am a justice of the peace in my hometown of Wolcott and have been for many years. To be clear, if there were a vote controversy in Wolcott I would not be reporting on that story due to a conflict of interests.

Barring any such controversy, being a justice of the peace in a small town is not a demanding job. However the seven JPs in my town perform a few important functions throughout the year. The JPs help out at elections, count ballots at Town Meeting and, along with other town officials, sit on the board of civil authority and board of abatement.

Some of us officiate weddings, but that's not a mandatory duty. We also have the power to give oaths. And if we register at the county courthouse, we can act as notaries.

The Vermont Secretary of State's Office publishes a JP Guide which outlines the job. It breaks the job down between mandatory and discretionary duties.

"Mandatory duties are those duties which, by law, the justice must perform," the guide explains. "These include: participating as a member of the board of civil authority by serving as an election official and assisting on Election Day, sitting on tax appeals and serving as a member of the board of tax abatement."

The guide continues, "Discretionary functions of the office include performance of marriages, administering oaths and serving as a magistrate. Justices have the power to perform these functions but are not required to do so in any particular instance. In deciding whether or not to perform these functions the justice may not discriminate on the basis of any prohibited factor including race, sex, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, age or disability."

Vermont JPs have it pretty easy compared to their counterparts in some states. Texas JPs, elected every four years, are true officers of the court and required to take mandatory law classes to maintain their post. In Massachusetts and New Hampshire JPs aren't elected at all, but appointed by the governor.

While the job has changed a lot since it was created by the Vermont constitution in 1777, justice of the peace is still the most popular elected office in Vermont. Over 1,800 people hold the title, including five in the town of Guildhall. Just who two of those five will be has yet to be determined.

Amy is an award winning journalist who has worked in print and radio in Vermont since 1991. Her first job in professional radio was at WVMX in Stowe, where she worked as News Director and co-host of The Morning Show. She was a VPR contributor from 2006 to 2020.
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