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John P. Altgeld.


The Abolition of Constables, Justices, and the Fee System.

Hon. David Bartlett,
Member of the Constitutional Convention,
Bismarck, North Dakota.

Dear Sir: In answer to your letter inquiring about the jurisdiction, usefulness, and popularity of county courts in this State, and whether they could not be made to take the place of justices of the peace, so as to do away with the latter, permit me to say that, in this State, county courts have jurisdiction in all tax matters, insane cases, all probate matters, election matters, and in civil cases where the amount involved is less than one thousand dollars. In this county, owing to the press of business, the legislature created a probate court several years ago to relieve the county court. I may say that the county courts have jurisdiction in those matters which come nearest to the people, and most directly affect them, and, all things considered, I believe they are the most useful and the most popular tribunals in this State. So far as I can observe, business is usually done by them not only in a legal, but also in a business-like and common-sense method, and without unnecessary delay, the latter being something which cannot always be said of our higher courts. While I have a high regard for some men who now hold the office of justice of the Peace, yet I would recommend the abolishing of this office, and that of constable, and, instead, the giving to the county court jurisdiction in all matters now heard by justices; but care should be taken at the same


time to provide that the county judge, as well as clerk and sheriff, should be paid a fixed salary, and that these should, under no circumstances, have any fees, but that all fees, where any are collected, should be paid into the county treasury. If you have justices of the peace you cannot pay all a salary, because of their number. And while there will be here and there one to whom the office will be incidental, there will be a great many who will depend largely on the fees for a living, and this leads everywhere to the same results, viz., injustice, oppression, extortion, and frivolous lawsuits, ruinous in the expense and in the loss of time which they entail. The courts become clogged with business, while the poor and the ignorant suffer. Do away with both justices and constables, for they must depend on fees, and, as a rule, are always on the lookout, eager to "drum up" business; and it is difficult to conceive of a worse demoralization and rottenness than usually grows out of this system. Provide for sufficient deputy-sheriffs to do the court work and all the work required to keep peace, and pay each a salary, and under no circumstances let any keep the fees. To permit any officer, whether judicial or executive, connected in any manner with the administration of justice, to collect and keep fees is to offer a standing temptation, if not a bribe, to do wrong in very many matters. And it is asking too much of human nature to expect a hungry man to be very scrupulous about the means or methods which will secure him bread.

Have the courts easily accessible and always open for business. There is no sense in having terms of court, and these held only a few times a year, so that there must be delay in getting a trial, whether there is much business or not. If the same judge is to hold the court in several counties, or if there is but little business, he can easily arrange matters by having the clerk give notice of the time at which a case will be heard. There is no reason why the average case should not be tried in the circuit court in fifteen days after service, just as it would before a justice of the peace.

Although this has been hurriedly written, I wish to assure you of my interest in the prosperity and happiness of your new State, and of my hope that you will be able to avoid errors and abuses which, once rooted, will be difficult to cure.

Very respectfully your obedient servant,
Judge of the Superior Court.

Chicago, July 19, 1889.