It was interesting to note the duties assigned to a justice of the peace. The officer could perform marriage ceremonies. Sometimes, depending on the jurisdiction, a price for the ceremony beyond which the justice was not to go was suggested, but most of the time the one with justice-of-the peace rights would set his own price. He would require a marriage license, and would then have to turn a signed document into the county jurisdiction so the marriage could be entered in public records.
Other duties of a justice of the peace included the right to witness oaths and signatures. He could also issue subpoenas and warrants to those who had infringed upon the law and needed to appear either in a local justice court or a higher court. The justice of the peace could also make arrests when anyone within his jurisdiction infringed upon the law, caused a fight, or otherwise had conduct that was a danger to public safety or the peace of the community. Arrests for misdemeanors also fell under his power. Local land-line disputes and timber rights settlements were sometimes within the justice’s parameters of practice.
The justice of the peace could sit as judge in small claims court. He could hear evidence from both sides, and if necessary call for witnesses to seek to learn more of the claims presented. He could provide mediation services in disagreements and arguments. Furthermore, he had the right to conduct inquests.
In Georgia, a justice of the peace could also serve as a notary public according to the Constitution of 1868. These officers, in addition to the above-listed duties, were also sometimes assigned to superintend the conditions of public roads in their jurisdiction and report to the county authorities in charge of roads any damages to roadways that would pose a danger to safety in travel, any repairs needed on bridges, or if a ferry operated in his jurisdiction to report on its condition. Other duties included reporting “lunatics” who might be a danger to the public or not watched properly. School conditions also sometimes fell under the inspection of justices of the peace until more stable county school officers were appointed to look after this aspect of the public good.
An interesting article was written by student James Reece for Sketches of Union County History III compiled by Teddy Oliver and published in 1987. In it, some facts were given about a Justice of the Peace named Robert Lee Nelson, who served for over forty years in the Brasstown Militia District.
Robert Lee Nelson married Alice Bridges in 1920. They made their home at Track Rock Gap. There he had a farm and operated a country store. He was first elected a justice of the peace the first year he was married. He was then thirty-eight years of age. He must have had a reputation for good character in that district.
James Reece, in writing about Mr. Nelson, stated: “He presided over his court with the dignity of a mountain jurist.” He was called the “Judge Bean” of Union County, who definitely thought the law was his to enforce.
In fact, Justice Robert Lee Nelson was so conscientious about the cases he tried, probably using his grocery store as the courtroom, that it is said the governors of the state of Georgia during Mr. Nelson’s long term of judging locally sometimes had to intervene and remind Mr. Nelson that he was over-stepping his bounds as a local justice of the peace.
With characteristic mountain out-spokenness, Mr. Nelson sent word back to the governor: “You look out for your side of the mountain, and I’ll look after mine.”
And “look after his side of the mountain” Mr. Robert Lee Nelson did, indeed. That he was serious about “holding court” at Track Rock is evidenced by some of Union County’s famous lawyers appearing in his court to represent the accused who had been brought before this “Judge Bean” of Track Rock. Among the lawyers were the honorable Pat Haralson, Thomas Slaughter Candler, and William E. Candler. Maybe they were getting early law practice in the little court at Track Rock held by the inimitable Justice of the Peace Robert Lee Nelson.
Mr. Robert Lee Nelson (April 15, 1882 – March 29, 1973) and his wife, Alice Bridges Nelson (February 1, 1891-April 22, 1970) were both interred in the Track Rock Baptist Church Cemetery not too far from where he operated his country store and held his justice-of-the-peace court.
c 2010 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published July 29, 2010 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.