And then there were 3 justices of the peace

And then there were 3 justices of the peace

State Rep. John Smithee might not call it that, but he's managed to pull off a little legislative hocus-pocus in the interest of getting some much-needed judicial relief for Randall County's two justices of the peace.

The Amarillo Republican, after consulting this past year with legislative legal counsel, discovered a way for the 2015 Texas Legislature to enact a bill that allows the county judge to appoint a fill-in, part-time justice of the peace to take the pressure off Randall County's two full-time JPs.

The issue of the JP workload has been a thorn in the county for a long time, with Precinct 4 -- comprising the northern portion of the county, including much of Amarillo -- having to deal with far greater demands than Precinct 1, which includes Canyon and much of rural Randall County.

Smithee credits County Judge Ernie Houdashell for finding a way "that authorizes larger counties to appoint a temporary JP to help with all the duties of the justice of the peace when the workload is warranted."

What did the Legislature come up with?

Smithee introduced legislation that gave Randall County the unique authority to add a part-time justice of the peace. "You have to be a county where most residents live in a city that also includes another county -- and includes a state park," Smithee said, noting that Amarillo straddles the Randall-Potter County line and that Palo Duro Canyon State Park also sits inside the county's boundary.

"The Texas Constitution allows this," Smithee said. So, the legislative amendment was placed into an omnibus bill, approved by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott.

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What's been the impact?

According to Randall County Precinct 4 Justice of the Peace Clay Houdashell, the effect has given him his life back.

The county was able to appoint former Precinct 1 JP Jerry Bigham to work roughly 15 hours

weekly to assist Houdashell and the current Precinct 1 JP, Tracy Byrd.

Bigham worked as a full-time JP for 11-plus years before retiring in April 2014, citing family health concerns. The Commissioners Court appointed Byrd, who was running unopposed for the seat, to become the JP in that precinct.

Over time, those health issues resolved themselves, Bigham said. "Then I got a phone call while I was visiting with my daughter in California," Bigham explained. County Judge Ernie Houdashell called to ask if he wanted to come back to work part time.

"I gave it some thought," Bigham said, "and I discovered it was a perfect fit for me."

Bigham said he didn't need training. He knew the job and its myriad responsibilities -- including ordering inquests when people die, dealing with truancies and small-claims cases.

The Commissioners Court inserted money into its current fiscal year budget to pay for the part-time JP. The money pays for the part-time justice of the peace to work "no more than 29 hours every two weeks," Bigham said.

The three men work together well, they all acknowledged. Byrd has been on the job about 18 months; Houdashell has slightly more than nine years experience; Bigham's 11 years as a JP give the county a combined experience pool of more than two decades.

The addition of the part-time, fill-in JP enables Houdashell and Byrd to schedule time off with their families. Indeed, when Byrd took the job after being appointed, he said he asked his administrative assistant about vacation and sick leave benefits. "She told me I don't get any vacation or sick time," Byrd said. "It's a 24/7, 365-day-a-year job," he said.

"Now, with Judge Bigham here," Byrd said, "I can plan a date with my wife."

Houdashell said he and other two JPs rotate among themselves which one of them will answer what he called "body calls," or those calls that require a justice of the peace to respond to a death and order an autopsy if one is needed.

Houdashell also said he "can go to sleep at night knowing that the phone won't ring" in the middle of the night. "We have a cushion, a buffer and Judge Bigham brings great value to Randall County by being available," Houdashell said.

All three men noted that Potter County, with slightly fewer residents than Randall County, has four full-time justices of the peace; each JP has a staff, a courtroom and an office. "I don't need an office," Bigham said, explaining that he essentially works out of Houdashell's office at the County Annex on South Georgia Street; Byrd's office is on the Courthouse Square in downtown Canyon.

Randall County once had four justice of the peace precincts, but a previous Commissioner Court decided in the late 1990s to do away with Precincts 2 and 3. "We still have four commissioner precincts, of course," Byrd said, "but just two JP precincts."

There might be a need to create a more permanent expansion of the JP operation in Randall County, Houdashell said, "but that would require an amendment to the (Texas) Constitution," he said, requiring a vote of all Texans to decide whether to approve it.

One option the county could consider would be to add a second place in Precinct 4, with a full-time justice of the peace working in a separate office. One idea the county has considered would be to put offices in the county jail complex on South Georgia Street just south of Hollywood Road (Loop 335).

"We'll know when we need to do it when this arrangement no longer is serving the needs of Randall County," Houdashell said.

For now, the arrangement with Bigham on board is working well -- for the residents and for JPs Houdashell and Byrd, both men say.

Houdashell recalled one day in which he received a dozen notices on "dead bodies" in the span of three days. "The workload was just overbearing," he said. "This arrangement takes off a lot of the pressure," he said.

What's more, Bigham said, getting called back to duty gives him something constructive to do -- but he said he "can walk away whenever I feel like it."

The three of them seem to belong to a mutual admiration society. "I wouldn't do this without those other two guys," Bigham said of Houdashell and Byrd.

Houdashell concurred. "These two guys," he said of Bigham and Byrd, "both have servants' hearts. I have great respect for these guys."