Initially, in more than 40 states, voters elected a Justice of the Peace and a Constable. Today only a few states elect JPs and Constables.
Justices typically hear small claims lawsuits, hold preliminary hearings for felony charges, and adjudicate traffic and minor criminal cases. Justices often are not attorneys, and many worked on the fee system, where they received a flat amount for each case docketed.
Constables are peace officers. Their powers differ somewhat among the various states, although their statutory powers are usually in addition to their English common law authority.
They serve civil process (summonses, subpoenas and orders) and writs (attachments, garnishments, and replevins). They also evict tenants after a civil action is brought to remove them, and collect civil judgments by seizing and selling a debtor's personal property.
Constables also serve arrest and search warrants issued by the Justice Court.
While Constables usually have countywide authority to serve civil and criminal documents, they normally cannot make a warrantless arrest outside of their town, precinct, village, township or other district in which they were elected.
Historically, Constables received a statutory fee for each civil or criminal process they served, along with mileage and other expenses. In larger jurisdictions, a Constable might have one or more deputies to assist him with his duties.
Most states allowed a Justice of the Peace to appoint a suitable person as a “Special Constable” to serve a writ or other judicial process if the Constable was not available or the office was vacant.
Beginning in the 1960s, the American Bar Assn. campaigned to replace Justice Courts with salaried magistrates who are members of the bar. The Office of Constable was abolished in many of the states that upgraded their lower court system.
In those states that abolished Constables, the duties of attending to the magistrate courts were given to the county Sheriff. In the states that still have Constables, they are usually salaried and have completed P.O.S.T. certified peace officer training programs. In a few states, they still work on the fee system and have only civil process responsibilities.
For a detailed discussion on their office, see Anderson, A Treatise on the Law of Sheriffs, Coroners and Constables (Dennis & Co., 1941). Although out of print, the two-volume treatise is still found in many law school libraries.