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Texas-Size Ambition: 18-Year-Old Running for Justice of the Peace

October 17, 1990

PLANO, Texas (AP) _ A rookie politician just graduated from high school, but he already may be drawing the most attention to the office of justice of the peace since Judge Roy Bean and his six-guns were the law west of the Pecos.

In March, while still a senior, 18-year-old John Payton defeated 50-year- old incumbent Jim Murrell in the Republican primary.

There is no Democratic candidate on the Nov. 6 ballot, so Payton is assured of victory unless Murrell is successful with a write-in campaign he’s waging to hold on to the $37,944-a-year job.

″I didn’t take him seriously, but I am certainly capable of running a campaign,″ said Murrell, who lost 6,549-to-6,029 in the primary.

Justices of the peace perform weddings, issue warrants and conduct trials on criminal and small claims cases. Perhaps the most well known Texas JP was Bean, whose court was the Jersey Lily Saloon in Langtry.

In the 1880s, Bean, a hero of pulp fiction and 20th century television, dispensed his own brand of justice with the help of his guns. He once fined a corpse $40 for carrying a concealed weapon.

Peace justices don’t have to be lawyers and the age requirement is only 18, so Payton chose the job for his first foray into politics, which he wants to make his career.

″I went out there the old fashioned way and worked for it,″ said Payton, whose 19th birthday is Jan. 23.

He’s now a political science major at Collin County Community College in this town just north of Dallas.

Murrell says he learned a lesson from his primary loss.

″We are doing everything that we know how to do to contact voters,″ Murrell said.

″We’re talking about our age, education, time in the area ... the experience I have as justice of the peace, teaching, instructing and community service,″ Murrell said.

He’s also asking reporters to check whether Payton had to make up classes and was fired from his part-time job in the grill at Chase Oaks Golf Course.

Lynn Coker in the school registrar’s office said she couldn’t release Payton’s record without his permission. Payton said he needed to take extra courses because he transferred from Maryland during his junior year.

Golf course manager Gary Black said Payton wasn’t fired and was a good employee for the three months he worked there.

″He just basically said he did not have enough time to do his job and run his campaign and try to do a good job as a justice of the peace candidate,″ Black said.

County Republican Party Chairman Jerry Madden predicts another victory for Payton.

″He did an outstanding job in the primary,″ Madden said.

Payton has promised to conduct night court and weekend weddings. He also has attacked Murrell as a college dropout.

Murrell said ministers conduct weekend weddings and says night court would cost a minimum of $100,000. Murrell acknowledges he never finished college, but says he has a wealth of life experience vital to the job.

″I do not feel that an 18-year-old is capable of having the maturity to do the job that we have to do,″ he said.

Payton responds that Murrell is prejudging him.

″I bring to the court ... integrity, honesty, high ethics and high moral standards,″ Payton said. ″I support hard work. ... I was out there walking door-to-door.″

Payton said his campaign has the attention of other teen-agers.

″They’re very excited because they now can say that what lies ahead of them is a good and a hopeful and a prosperous future,″ he said.

Murrell isn’t planning his future beyond the election, but said he has other job offers to consider if he loses.

″I’m not running just to keep a job or to keep a paycheck coming to my house,″ he said. ″There’s always something I’m capable and qualified of doing.″

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