Photo by Shawn Arrajj
Judge Matt Masden has served as the Justice of the Peace in Montgomery County for seven years, but with 30 years serving the county under his belt, he knows the area and the people in it as well as anyone. Prior to being elected Justice of the Peace in Precinct 5 in 2006, Masden spent 23 years working in the precinct constable’s office.
“When Judge Carolyn Cox retired, I ran for the position and was lucky enough to win,” he said.
Masden said his experience in law enforcement has given him insight and makes him take his job very seriously.
“I bailiffed for Judge Cox for a number of years,” he said. “When I make a decision, it really strikes home that I am affecting someone’s life.”
Masden has spent most of his life in Magnolia, where he graduated from Magnolia High School in 1977. He began working with Constable David Hill in 1983. His position is up for election in 2014 and he plans to run for re-election.
“I’ve had 30 years with the county and my goal is to eventually have 40,” he said.
As Justice of the Peace, his responsibilities include hearing both civil and criminal cases, ranging from evictions to traffic offenses. He serves as the precinct’s coroner and also has the power to perform wedding ceremonies.
“I’m pretty much on call 24/7,” he said.
What are your main responsibilities as Justice of the Peace?
We handle civil lawsuits that are up to $10,000 in money or damages. I hear evictions on a weekly basis. We take care of all the evictions when people are behind on their rent. If the people refuse to move out, we have to do risk possession. We issue those through the constable’s office. I handle dangerous animal hearings. If somebody’s been bitten and animal control deems it dangerous, or if the party requests a hearing, I make those determinations. I do seizure hearings when property is recovered. I do administrative hearings, such as determining if people get to keep their driver’s licenses or what they need to do to get them back. I also do towed car hearings.
I handle concealed handgun cases. If somebody wants to petition the court because they feel like they need their concealed handgun license and the state says they can’t have it, I get to make that determination.
On the criminal side, if you get a ticket and you don’t think you’re guilty, I hear those cases. A lot of those are traffic offenses, assaults, family violence and things of that nature. I hear criminal cases where the fine is $500 or less. I hear parks and wildlife cases, especially during deer season when people are out there poaching. I hear truancy cases through the school district to see what we can do to get our children back in school.
How does a trial with the Justice of the Peace work?
I still consider the Justice of the Peace court the people’s court. You don’t have to be represented by an attorney. It’s not a “Judge Judy” court. I listen, I apply the law, I make my determination. There is no yelling or screaming. People rarely get out of line. Most of the people who come in just want to talk about their case.
Normally, I have cases three to four days a week. [Montgomery County District Attorney] Brett Ligon has an assistant DA come in and talk to people. A lot of the time, the assistant DA is able to take care of the case before it even comes to me in court. If they are not able to work things out, they’ll set it for trial and we’ll go from there. Last week we had around 150 people show up and go through court.
If there is a case that I feel uncomfortable hearing for whatever reason, or if I know the people involved, I can get another Justice of the Peace to come over and hear the case. I do the same thing for other justices, too. We have to work together when those issues arise.
In what ways have things changed since you took office?
One of the main things that changed since I took office was the jurisdiction amount went from $5,000 for a small claims suit up to $10,000. It doubled, and our work doubled. It’s something the legislature put in place. They thought we could take some of the load off county and district courts.
What would you say is the most rewarding part of your job?
I think one of the biggest differences we make is working with juveniles. If they get a ticket, they get to come see me. In lieu of, say, a $150 fine, I normally give them 16–20 hours of community service. This helps in two ways: It keeps insurance rates lower for parents, and it gives young people a chance to give back to the community.
I see students who are not going to school as they should. I’m fair but I’m firm. As someone with 21- and 19-year-old sons, I tell these students, ‘your job is to get up and go to school.’ I think I’ve made some differences. I’ve had some students write me letters thanking me for the direction the court gave them. That’s the generation that’s going to take care of us. I see some bright and intelligent young men and women come through my court. Sometimes you just need tough love. Sometimes it doesn’t come from the parent and has to come from a different source.
In what ways are you involved with the community?
For anything that benefits the community that comes to my attention, if I’m able to help, I’m there. I consider myself more of a community leader than an elected official. Saint Mathias [Catholic Church] had their church bazaar recently. I’m a long-time member with them, so I was there helping them out. The Magnolia Volunteer Department recently had a new engine come in at its station on Nichols Sawmill Road and I was there for that.
I get up and go to work every day. When the phone rings at 3 a.m., you respond. That’s part of the job. You depend on the people who put you in office, and you need to give back to them.