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Dispensing Justice in Rural Nevada : Small-Town Judges Are a Throwback to Days of Old West

Charles Hillinger's America

October 27, 1985|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

JARBIDGE, Nev. — The judge, his wife and the stranger were having coffee in the kitchen of the judge's log cabin in this remote hamlet. Logs crackled in the living room fireplace, heating the modest home.

"Where's your courtroom, judge?" Justice of the Peace Johnny Williams, 61, was asked.

"You're in it. The courtroom is the kitchen. We sit around this table and hear cases. We don't stand on ceremony in Jarbidge. I never wear robes, just my everyday coveralls," the spindly 6-foot, 135-pound judge said.

Williams is the lowest-paid judge in Nevada. His salary as justice of the peace at Jarbidge, population 17, is $25.12 a week. It was $9.30 a week when he was elected to his first term 23 years ago.

Few ever get to Jarbidge, elevation 6,200 feet, an old gold mining camp 12 miles south of the Idaho line in Nevada's northeast corner on the slopes of 10,839-foot Matterhorn Mountain.

A one-lane, 105-mile-long winding dirt road through the mountains leads here from the south. The only other way in or out is 26 miles on a twisting one-lane dirt road north to pavement Charles Hillinger's America

through a narrow river canyon embraced by towering peaks peppered with spectacular rock outcroppings.

Jarbidge is really out of the way. Hunters and fishermen wander through here spring, summer and fall. Not many others. Most of winter the town is snowed in.

Meting out justice in small towns and hamlets of rural Nevada is the domain of 62 elected justices of the peace, 47 of them lay judges, some high school graduates, some not, some university alumni. Fifteen are attorneys; a dozen are women.

Nevada's justice courts are a throwback to the days of the Old West.

"Come see my jail," Judge Williams beckoned. Two blocks up the town's dusty only street, past a handful of log cabins and turn-of-the-century false-front-frame buildings, by the Outdoor Inn, a saloon with a sign "No Guns Allowed in Bar," is the Jarbidge jail, a small concrete, adobe and wood structure with two cells.

"This is what a jail oughta be," the judge said. "Primitive, unsanitary. Nowadays prisoners are pampered too much. We don't pamper prisoners in Jarbidge."

No Mattresses

In the jail were two rusty springs on bed frames. No mattresses. No bedding. Under each spring sat a chamber pot.

Down the road from the jail is The Barn, an abandoned red barn converted into a 10-room hotel, $15.90 a night with a common bathroom and shower.

Williams, a lifelong resident of Jarbidge, was first elected judge in 1962. He was postmaster here 24 years until he retired and his wife, Gloria, 60, succeeded him last year.

"I served as judge three years my first term, then quit to become town constable. Constable was paid $60 a month then and judge only $40," Williams explained. "After five years as constable I went back to being judge."

"The Post Office Department didn't think it was right having a postmaster who was also a cop. But the Post Office Department said it was OK to be postmaster and judge because being judge was much more dignified than being constable. So, I have been judge ever since."

He runs for office every four years and has never had any competition. To supplement his income, the judge is a plumber, carpenter, heavy equipment operator at a nearby gold mine and runs the Jarbidge Water Co.

'Holds Town Together'

"Judge Williams does everything. He pretty much holds the town together," said Outdoor Inn bartender-cook Wileen Cambridge, 35. "He blades the road so we can get in and out. . . ."

The judge performs half a dozen marriages a year and hears mostly fish and game violation cases. "One night last year wardens brought 11 violators to my kitchen for trial. The whole house was full of them," the judge recalled.

"I left," the judge's wife chimed in.

But he usually isn't very busy as far as courtroom activity. This year, for example, he has heard only two cases so far.

Judge Johnny Williams, the remotest judge in the state, is the only judge in Nevada without a telephone. "I got by 61 years without a phone. No sense getting one at this late stage of the game," he snorted.

Jackpot Justice of the Peace Jay W. Snyder's hat, glasses, face, hands and clothes were covered with dirt from clouds of flying dust as he bulldozed garbage into a pit at the town dump.

An unlikely spot to find a judge.

"Look, being judge doesn't pay that much," laughed Snyder, 64, as he took a breather. He earns $116.28 a week as judge, a job he has held in Jackpot, population 1,000, for eight years.

He augments his judiciary income by filling many other positions in the tiny town. Judge Snyder is sanitary fill caretaker, secretary to the town board, building inspector, director of the municipal water and sewer system and airport manager. He was also Jackpot fire chief and ambulance driver for 15 years until he gave up those two jobs this past July.

Jackpot is a three-casino town. Gambling is its only reason for existence. The main streets are Lady Luck Boulevard, Roulette Avenue and Snake Eyes Drive.

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