Justices of the peace in McLennan County historically have served as jail magistrates, working in rotating shifts to arraign and set bonds for county jail inmates.
In the not-so-distant past, the county had nine JPs and they all took turns as jail magistrates, including, in most instances, traveling to the jail twice a day on weekends to make sure those arrested on Friday and Saturday nights had the opportunity to bond out of jail.
After the most recent redistricting process, the county consolidated a few justice of the peace precincts, which cut the number of JPs to six countywide.
However, as of the first of the year, only two of the county’s JPs — Precinct 5 JP Fernando Villarreal and Precinct 4 JP Brian Richardson — remain in the loop to perform weekend magistrate duties. That is because Precinct 1, Place 1 JP Dianne Hensley and Precinct 1, Place 2 JP Pete Peterson pulled out of the weekend rotation at the end of last year after telling commissioners during budget hearings they wanted more money to continue the time-honored practice.
Peterson and Hensley both make $73,707 a year, but neither has offered to take a cut in pay since they stopped performing the weekend jail duty historically reserved for justices of the peace.
“Yeah, Fernando and I are the lone rangers,” said Richardson, who earns $56,219 annually. “I was elected to do a job, I knew what the job was when I took it and that is what I am going to do. I totally understand where Pete and Dianne are coming from. It doesn’t mean I agree with it. I just decided I was going to keep doing the job I was elected to do. Fernando and I are in agreement with that.”
Precinct 3 JP David Pareya dropped out of the weekend jail rotation after he had a heart attack 11 years ago. Precinct 2 Justice of the Peace James Lee Jr. quit performing those duties two years ago after a disagreement about a senior judge overruling him on a bond he set that the other judge deemed too low.
Hensley, who has been JP since 2015, said she and Peterson share responsibilities in the county’s largest JP precinct, which includes more duties because Precinct 1 has more residents and both of Waco’s hospitals.
“McLennan County has grown considerably in recent years,” Hensley said in a statement. “I’m looking forward to working with commissioners court and all the judges in McLennan County who share the responsibility to magistrate for the people of McLennan County. My hope is that together we can maximize the efficiency of the judicial system in our county.”
The past Legislature increased jurisdiction in JP courts from $10,000 to $20,000, and Hensley said she expects a large increase in small-claims and debt-collection filings in her court beginning Sept. 1 when the change takes effect. That will add to her already full plate of duties, she said.
“It’s not like it was 20 years ago when this job was a real part-time gig,” Hensley said, adding that she and Peterson are called out to an average of about 200 death inquests a year, the majority of them in the middle of the night.
Peterson, who has been a JP for eight years, declined comment on the change in weekend jail rotation.
The county hired Virgil Bain eight years ago to serve as an associate judge and jail magistrate. He goes to the jail twice every weekday to set bonds but does not work on weekends. Bain is paid $118,500 annually.
Hensley and Peterson asked for more pay to continue their weekend duties, but when that fell on deaf ears at the commissioners court, they suggested the county hire either a young lawyer or a semi-retired lawyer for $1,000 a month to perform weekend jail duties.
Hensley said when there was no response to that suggestion, she proposed that all county judges with magistrate authority — the county’s five state district judges, two county court-at-law judges, all six JPs, Bain and County Judge Scott Felton — combine to cover the weekend rotation.
“If everyone participates, thus alleviating the strain, we would be happy to participate in such a rotation,” Hensley and Peterson wrote to Felton and commissioners in a memo dated Dec. 20. “Should the county decide to hire associate judges as expeditiously as possible to handle the weekend magistrate duty, we might be amenable to continuing to magistrate until the new team is in place. In the absence of one of these solutions being implemented, Judges Peterson and Hensley will come off the jail magistrate rotation effective December 31, 2019.”
Felton, McLennan County judge, initially declined comment when asked about Peterson and Hensley dropping their weekend duties.
“I am looking at the bigger picture, and that is if we are getting the job done, and it appears we are getting it done,” Felton said. “I guess they felt like it was tying up their weekend time because they were doing jail duty. But that is up to the voters. They voted them in. They don’t answer to me, they answer to the voters.”
Villarreal, who has served as JP 28 years, said he got a $5,000 raise to $61,968 two years ago because as the only JP who is an attorney, he also has the authority to issue search warrants for blood draws. That means quite a few 3 a.m. calls from law enforcement officials who are at the hospital with a DWI suspect, he said.
Villarreal also handles the majority of student truancy cases, which average 150 to 200 cases a week and take up his afternoons at least three days a week.
“My position is that weekend magistrate duties are part of my job,” Villarreal said. “When this situation came up, I said all along I will keep doing what I have been doing and I am glad Judge Richardson was willing to do the same thing, because it is down to two of us now but we are making it work.”
Villarreal said he does not have an opinion about Hensley and Peterson dropping out of the rotation.
”I respect my fellow judges,” he said. “I do what I think is part of my responsibility, the jail run, issuing warrants, truancy cases, requests for blood draws, those are all part of my job. I was elected to do a job and I am doing it and I am going to keep on doing it.”
Lee, who earns $56,219, declined to say why he left the weekend rotation, but said he thinks all the JPs work hard and try to do the right thing. He said he has asked for county officials to sit down to discuss the situation but has not received a reply.
“I truly appreciate Brian and Fernando for taking the lead and doing what they believe is right,” Lee said. “I am still waiting on that invitation to sit down at the roundtable. Let’s get things straightened out. I’m waiting for the invitation for those who can magistrate in McLennan County to sit down at the table like brothers and sisters and see how we can resolve the issues that we have.”
As JP in West for 42 years, Pareya is by far the dean of the group. After his heart attack 11 years ago, he tried to get other eligible judges to perform jail magistrate duties but said “that didn’t go anywhere.”
He said he was not aware that the weekend jail rotation was down to two JPs.
“No, I don’t think that is fair to them at all,” Pareya said. “But we have a resource of 12 other judges to choose from. There is a lot of manpower out there, and I did make it known in those early years when I decided I didn’t have the ability to do this anymore that it is not our chore by law.
“We have the ability to perform that duty, but so does every every other judge up there. So I said early on, if you get everybody in the game, then we will all rotate out like a team and I said I will be in line with you.”