MY DAYS AS JUSTICE OF THE PEACE

by Don Shoutz


COMING TO COKATO
I came to Cokato in 1963 after teaching in Royalton for three years. After three years in Cokato I was asked to apply at Montevideo by the principal who had been at Royalton. I stayed there only one year, for two reasons. One is that Rex Pruitt resigned and left a history vacancy and the other is that Cokato is so much more centrally located, especially if one needs medical assistance.

GETTING "HOOKED" INTO THE JOB
I had no sooner settled back in Cokato than Larry Anderson (the special ed director, now deceased), asked me to be justice of the peace. "Nothing to it..." he said.

Well, I spent a lot of time in the office of Wyman Nelson asking what to do. Wyman's office was just across the street from city hall. I am sure he started laughing the minute he saw me coming across the street. There was a lot more happening than "nothing to it."

Keep in mind that there was no instruction. I was given a large manual of statutes, many forms, and two styles of marriage services that Larry had composed.

The first year I was asked to handle barking dog complaints, stealing candy from a cafe, sexual harassment, barking dogs, getting information for another sheriff on someone he was after, barking dogs, garnishing wages-did I mention barking dogs?

Before I realized that the book of statutes was my bible I had actually filled out one form making up my own definition of one particular offense. The people at the Wright County Courthouse did not take kindly to that sort of action.

I PERFORMED FOUR MARRIAGES
One was in front of a house, on the lawn, with cars roaring by during the ceremony. The college kids and bride and groom were on one side of the sidewalk and the distinguished relatives on the other side. I asked if it was okay to mention "God" in the service. They had to think, answering with "I suppose."

Another marriage was in my office. The girl was either a senior or just out of high school. All the relatives showed up and I was squeezed into a corner to make room for everyone. They were all yelling and hollering and I was sweating. Well, I got them married and the group went streaming elsewhere.

The third marriage was done in my home, by their request. The couple was from out of town. The girl did not seem too happy about the whole affair, but we set a date for them to come back. On the set day, the groom and best man were a little early and the bride was very late. She was not a "happy camper." She cried a lot. I doubt if that marriage lasted very long. It probably should not have taken place.

The last marriage was very unique. The groom was an elderly man and had lost his first wife. He was now marrying a girl he known from "yesteryear." She was also blind. And so it was done on the farm lawn, under the shade of a big tree. After the ceremony there was lunch and a woman asked, "What does the 'mister' want?" I suppose they did not know what else to call me and maybe because the stuff in the bottles was ready to break out without pouring.

JUST A TYPICAL DAY AS J.P.
I was surprised how many people were upset with me because they had a fine to pay. Some wanted a "favor" done, which I could not do. It was usually something like "I'm not guilty of anything so don't fine me anything." I did "carry" a few people for a month or so, especially if I knew their particular circumstances.

In those years, a $70 fine was rather stiff. Traffic fines were a set amount. I got four dollars for each case.

Several people stopped me on the street, shoved the money in my hand, and stormed off. Somehow I was to blame for their offense.

During the court dates, an officer was usually there, thank goodness. Some people can get rather nasty. The police were used to all the excuses. For someone who was going 70 at night and would say "what's the big deal? I was the only one out there!" To which the police would say "Well, I was out there."

Or, "I was speeding because it's my girl's car and I'm not used to it." Answer: "If you can't handle it, don't drive it." I loved that one!

Some people sent to a j.p. in another town wanted me to take the case and "help them out." You can not appeal a case to the same level court. You have to appeal "up."

At the time I started the job (1968), there was a popular television show starring comedian Flip Wilson. He was using the phrase "here com 'de judge." Many, many people in town seemed to think it rather funny to say that to me-over and over.

After three years of this, the state decided that the work of the justice of the peace could better be accomplished if everything was handled at the county court. And so it became a piece of history.


Don Shoutz was a long time social studies teacher at Cokato and Dassel-Cokato High Schools and is a member of the historical society.