Justices of the Peace: A Conversation about Law, Language, and Virtue, 1216 RIBJ, RIBJ, 65 RI Bar J., No. 3, Pg. 25


Justices of the Peace: A Conversation about Law, Language, and Virtue

Vol. 65 No. 3 Pg. 25

Rhode Island Bar Journal

December, 2016

November, 2016

Ernest G. Mayo, Esq. Warren Municipal Court Johnson & Wales University Professor

Cast: Atticus & Portia, Rhode Island lawyers, and the waiter

Scene: Lunchtime at Giada's Ristorante Providence. Atticus and Portia are seated at a table.

Waiter: [arrives with bread and olive oil] Benvenuto.

Atticus: [to the waiter] Soup, do you have soup today?

Waiter: Si, today's zuppa is Italian Wedding – very excellent – made with pork, beef endive, and freshly grated parmigiano in a chicken broth. Bellissima.

Atticus: [to Portia] Will I like that?

Portia: It's worth a try Atticus. [to the waiter] I'll have the Caesar salad.

Waiter: Molto bene. [to Atticus] Signore?

Atticus: The soup.

Waiter: Grazie. Vino?

Portia: No, two waters only. Thank you.

Waiter: Sì, acqua.

Atticus: While we're speaking of weddings.

Portia: Ah, but we were not.

Atticus: Italian wedding soup, remember?

Portia: We started this conversation on the negative note of food-induced sleep, are we now going to venture into one of your agita inducing rants?

Atticus: Rants! I merely make observations for your consideration. For example, speaking of weddings, how is it that the term justice of the peace is routinely bandied about as the proper appellation for the person who may legally officiate at a civil wedding? And, I must add, is also used incorrectly by those few who are, in fact, authorized to officiate. They should, and undoubtedly do, know justice of the peace is being improperly used. Tell me that!

Portia: Well, could it be that JPs are licensed to perform weddings in Little Rhody?

Atticus: No, it could not.

Portia: Wow. Learn something new every day.

Atticus: The General Laws are quite clear on this point: a justice of the peace may perform essentially the duties of a notary, which does not, as you well know, include marriages, and those of a bail commissioner if so appointed by the appropriate court, again, no weddings.1

Portia: What brought this on? Are you looking to get married?

Atticus: No. And did you know that there is a very comprehensive list of those who are empowered to perform weddings in Little Rhody; a list with no JPs?2

Waiter: [delivering pitcher to the table] Acqua con fettine dilimone – with lemon slices. Portia: Thank you.

Atticus: I happened to be in a town clerk's office recently when a couple asked for a marriage license and the names of some justices of the peace to perform their nuptials. The clerk responded immediately, presenting a printed list of names and phone numbers. I glanced over. Well, really, I moved several feet to my left and deliberately read the clerk's list titled justices of the peace!

Portia: Why does this annoy you so much or are you just trying to annoy me?

Atticus: Why does it bug me? I'll tell you why it bugs me. It's exasperating that members of our lawyer club, particularly lawyers who do have authority to perform weddings, should know better and so should the clerks. But they persist in referring to themselves improperly as justices of the peace and JPs do not have marriage authority! How can we expect the public to understand if our colleagues don't? That's why it annoys me.

Portia: But, don't these self-mislabeled justices of the peace have authority under the law as, for example, retired judges, or ministers of the internet temple of wedded bliss and such?

Atticus: I don't doubt it. I'm sure they are not perpetrating a fraud on the couples who appear before them; the weddings are valid, but that is not my point.

Waiter: [delivering the meal to the table] Scusa.

Suzanne Baldaia, Ph.D. Independent Scholar Johnson & Wales University Zuppa per il signore – insalata per la signora. Godere – enjoy!

Portia: Grazie.

Atticus: Oh, now you speak the language.

Portia: [gesturing a tiny bit with thumb and forefinger] Sì - così così.

Atticus: Back to my point. I'm sure the term is misused because people have encountered it so often in movies, on television, and in novels. But is that a legitimate reason for those who know better to do so? Look on the internet for someone to perform a wedding ceremony in Rhode Island and you encounter JP as the search term.3 In phone books ...

Portia: [interrupting] Remember them? Atticus: ... you had to look in the yellow pages under J P.4

Portia: But, isn't the term justice of the peace, or shall I say giudice di pace,...

Atticus: [interrupting] Nice touch.

Portia: ... the commonly used and accepted synonym for one who performs civil wedding ceremonies?

Atticus: Yes, but my point is that it is not the correct usage in this state even if it is in our neighbors' states.

Portia: Oh, so, Massachusetts and Connecticut authorize JPs to solemnize marriages?

Atticus: Yes, but I'm concerned with the Ocean State.5

Portia: Ah, the cooler and warmer state.

Atticus: Rants, you want rants, don't get me started on that one.

Portia: Well, what about the term's etymology? Hasn't it been understood to include the authority to perform weddings since early common law?

Atticus: Not really. Originally, and I'm talking the 14th century, a justice of the peace was appointed by the English monarch to "keep the peace."6 Even the leading colonial manual for justices of the peace makes no mention of marriage authority, which is much closer to the Rhode...

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