Peace Justices see differing roles
by PHILLIP WILLIAMS
Jun 09, 2013 | 1310 views | 0 0 comments | 63 63 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Two Upshur County Justices of the Peace expressed differing views of their job’s purpose when they spoke last Saturday at the quarterly meeting of the Republican Party of Upshur County’s Executive Committee.

Pct. 2 JP Lyle Potter and Pct. 3 JP Rhonda Welch, both Republicans, addressed about 45 persons at the committee’s invitation during the public meeting at the Walking ‘S’ Steak House outside Gilmer. The county’s other Republican Justice of the Peace, Laura Lee Norred, of Pct. 1, was also invited, but did not attend.

The difference between Potter and Mrs. Welch surfaced during the question-and-answer portion of the program, when Potter said “We’re not there for (generating) revenue,” and Welch then said, “Well, I am.”

Potter then asserted the system “is designed for public safety, not revenue,” and that wherever cases are filed, fines are “going to go in the same hole.” In addition, he said, the county only gets a small percentage of a $144 fine for not wearing a seat belt.

Mrs. Welch said that from 2008 onward, her office had collected more revenue each year than the prior year, except once. The office collected $166,000 in 2012, and has taken in at least $106,000 yearly since 2008, she noted.

“My cases are worked,” said the Gladewater-based Pct. 3 judge, who is in her seventh year in office.

The two judges also generally described the duties of their offices under state law.

Potter noted they include handling commitments of the mentally ill, adding “We have a huge mental situation in Upshur County. . . I average probably six (such cases) a week.” And, he said, the county’s other three JPs, as well as County Judge Dean Fowler, also deal with such cases.

“There’s not a revenue generated with that,” said Potter, who noted he can receive calls on such cases—or to pronounce people dead—at 2 or 3 a.m.

Potter, who is seeking reelection next year, said he will have completed 14 years in office in two separate stints when his current term expires at the end of 2014. He said the Justice of the Peace office was first established in England for “commoners in rural areas to be able to have a court.”

Today, Texas JP courts’ jurisidiction in civil suits involves cases of $5,000 to $10,000, so “credit card companies are starting to file in our courts,” as are corporations, he said.

As for criminal cases, JP courts handle such Class C misdemeanors as speeding tickets, theft by check, and public intoxication, Potter said. They also act as medical examiners by going to the scene where people die, order evictions, and Potter said he handled about 25 hearings the prior week for failure to appear in court.

In Upshur County, Potter noted, the four JPs (including Ms. Norred and Democrat W.V. Ray of Pct. 4) rotate by taking weekend calls one weekend monthly each. While they are accessible to the public here, he said, “you probably won’t get to talk to the JP” in bigger cities, where such a judge could have 25 clerks, Potter said.

The long-time Pct. 2 JP, whose office is located adjacent to the Upshur County Jail, noted he also handles criminal arraignments (setting of bonds) of jail prisoners on weekdays. And felony warrants sometimes begin in his office, he added, but he cannot give legal advice.

During the Q-and-A period, Potter said he probably works 40 hours weekly, but “my job is not all at the office.”

When asked what in his office generates funds for the county, he said traffic citations and criminal cases. Those receiving traffic citations can pay them by credit card at trafficpayment.com, said Potter, who noted he also uses a collection agency for fines and that he allows payment plans.

Potter also said Upshur’s four JP offices have, over 13 years, collected $141,000 in “JP technology fees,” which can be spent only by those four offices, and then only with the County Commissioners Court’s approval.

He also said he would have no problem periodically giving the press reports on his office’s activities, as Mrs. Welch does.

In beginning her talk, Judge Welch told the audience, “I just want you to know I love my job.”

She said she uses her one clerk for collecting fines, instead of utilizing a collection agency (or two clerks). In addition, she said, the area has many new state troopers, and constables and deputy sheriffs are sending her more tickets.

“We do good with what we get,” the Pct. 3 JP said.

Mrs. Welch, whose office is in the county’s Gladewater substation, said she is in that city virtually every day and, if not at her office, working as needed at a medical clinic which is only a 5-minute drive away.

She recalled that during her first weekend in office several years ago, she believed she handled five death calls. Nowadays, thanks to hospice, she has fewer calls to pronounce people dead, and said she probably had 32 such inquest calls last year. (JPs pronounce people dead at the scenes of such occurrences as auto accidents, murders and suicides, among others).

Mrs. Welch said that if she receives a mental commitment call, or a call for an emergncy protective order, at 2 a.m., “I’m on my way” to the hospital. She said the county has “a lot of family violence.”

In addition, she said, an involuntary mental commitment only lasts 72 hours, which is “not long enough,” but gives the person’s family a break.

Asked what factors she uses in deciding whether to order an autopsy, she said there is no set criteria, but the main consideration is whether foul play might be involved.

And while she will automatically order autopsies on burned bodies, she said, an autopsy costs the county $2,000, so she doesn’t order unnecessary ones.

“My medical knowledge has given me a good basis to go on death calls,” Mrs. Welch said. For example, she pointed out, she will note what medications the person had been taking.

Also addressing the GOP meeting Saturday was State Rep. David Simpson (see separate story).
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