Judge Lincoln Goodwin serves as justice of the peace for Harris County Justice Court Precinct 4, Place 1, and has held the position of presiding judge for all Harris County justices of the peace for three years. Before becoming a justice of the peace, he practiced law for 20 years and earned recognition as a 2013 Texas Super Lawyer in Texas Monthly magazine and a 2013 and 2014 Top Lawyer in Houstonia magazine.
Below Judge Goodwin answers some of the most commonly asked questions.
What do most people not know about justice courts?
People are usually surprised to hear that we handle so much more than traffic cases. We hear drug and alcohol cases, assaults, truancy cases, and other juvenile crimes.
We handle civil lawsuits and a lot of landlord/tenant cases including evictions. We take these cases very seriously because we’re dealing with some of the most important things in life.
We hear civil cases for any claim under $20,000, so a lot of times, people represent themselves. We make sure they understand that the process is fair and that the system of justice works well for everyone. Jurisdictional amount effective September 1, 2020.
What are some other important functions of a justice of the peace?
Really, the most important thing, aside from our regular functions, is giving people confidence in their justice system. People have reasonable questions about the process. Is it fair? Was I heard and respected? That’s my goal for everyone who comes through our justice system — that people come and get their voices heard. Even if they don’t get the results they want, they leave knowing the process is fair.
It’s estimated that 90% of people in the community will have some form of interaction with the justice court. This is why justice courts are so important. Someone’s entire experience with the justice system may come from the justice court.
What’s something most people don’t know about your court?
My court is one of the largest courts in the United States as far as cases filed goes. Our court staff is extremely efficient. About 140,000 cases are filed in our court per year.
How are you able to handle such a high caseload?
Nearly all filings are now paperless. We’ve made it where folks can hand in their case and be in and out in 20 minutes. We’ve greatly expanded our online capabilities. We’re also customer-service oriented, friendly, and helpful. We cross-train, so if one area of the court is slower, some folks will go and assist.
How has the justice system improved since you’ve been in office?
We’re always looking for ways to innovate and improve. In the next several months, we’re looking into online mediation for civil cases. People may be able to resolve their disputes online without even having to come to court.
This aligns with our three core values. One, we value people. Two, we build trust. And three, we improve continually.
How different is each justice court?
There are 16 justice courts in Harris County, and all are very different.
Justices of the peace are judges, but they are also individual department heads. Justices set their court’s priorities, make hiring decisions, and establish the court and office culture.
Can I use any courthouse in Harris County?
For traffic citations, you need to visit one of the courthouses in the precinct where you received the citation.
Civil lawsuits need to be filed in the same precinct as the property under dispute or where the damage took place.
What areas does your court cover?
There are eight justice of the peace/constable precincts, and each one has two justices of the peace and one constable. Justice of the Peace Precinct 4 covers most of the same area as Commissioner Precinct 4, plus portions of Precincts 1, 2, and 3. Approximately 70% of our precinct aligns with the jurisdiction of the Precinct 4 Commissioner.
My particular court covers a large geographic area. Justice of the Peace Precinct 4 extends from Waller to Atascocita and includes everything in between — Hockley, Cypress, Tomball, Houston, Klein, Spring, Kingwood, and Humble.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
I enjoy really helping young people turn their lives around and navigate toward a successful life, especially those who are just starting to make some bad decisions.
When a young person first comes to court, our first goal is to determine what the issue is. Sometimes they are hanging out with the wrong people, using illegal substances, or they just need some personal discipline. Other times we uncover a learning disability, abuse, or a mental health issue.
None of these things excuse criminal behavior, and there are consequences for sure. But ultimately, our goal is to get a young person to make good decisions and on track toward having a successful life. This may include participation in various programs, ordering perfect attendance and conduct in school, and connecting them with mentors.
Those are the hardest and most satisfying cases. When I see a young person who has turned a corner and can finally see a path in life for themselves, I really feel we’ve done something positive for that person and for the community.