By Dave Rogers
For The Record

After 40 hours of training and a couple of weeks of shadowing his peers on their daily rounds, Hershel Stagner has a better understanding of his new job.
And beginning today, it’s go-time for the new Justice of the Peace of Orange County’s Precinct 1.
Stagner officially ended the only other full-time job he’s ever had with a Tuesday night country club send-off by his employers of 36 years, Claybar Funeral Home, and he’ll be sworn into office today.
“I was looking for a way of continuing my service to the community,” he said, “and I’ll be doing that, especially for the citizens of Precinct 1, and for all the citizens of Orange County when I’m on call. Then I’ll be Justice of the Peace for the whole county.”
Precinct 1 covers the northeast portion of Orange County.
How the county’s four JPs work their one-week a month rotations as magistrate for the county jail and on-call to attend to deaths other than of natural causes are among the things Stagner has learned since Nov. 29, when he was appointed to fill the nearly two-years unfilled term of Judge David Peck, who retired because of his health.
But you can bet Stagner did his homework. He said in a November interview he was looking into running for office as JP in 2018, before he heard of Peck’s early retirement.
And he said Monday he knew early on he wanted to be a funeral director.
“In the seventh grade I wrote a paper for class and said a funeral director was what I wanted to be,” he said.
Stagner said he always liked science and he was impressed by an early exposure to funeral directors.
“In junior high I started experiencing the deaths of my grandparents and I talked to funeral directors then and that piqued my interest,” he said.
“I’d always had an interest in science, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I looked at mortuary science as a career and decided that was the path I wanted to take.”
He graduated from Orangefield High School and went on to get a degree in mortuary science from McNeese State.
Stagner did an internship with Claybar during his final semester of college and then was hired by the business when he achieved his state licensing.
“It’s a form of ministry,” he said of the funeral industry. “You have to have the heart for this, to be able to help and take care of folks at the most difficult point of their lives.”
Leaving the only job he’s ever had isn’t easy.
“I’ve been real fortunate being here with the Claybar family because it’s a 70-year-old family-owned funeral home,” Stagner said. “That’s important because family-owned firms are different than corporate-owned funeral homes.”
In making his rounds, Stagner had plenty of opportunities to come into contact with JPs. Peck was one of those.
He says in the past month Peck was a big help as he transitioned to his new job and that he will even wear Peck’s robe to court.
“I’ve been to all the (Orange County) Justice of the Peace offices, and able to observe their duties, get an idea of the daily procedures of their office,” Stagner said. “They hve all been very helpful.”
In Texas, JPs hear traffic and other non-jail Class C misdemeanor cases. They hear civil cases up to $10,000, as well as landlord and tenant disputes and truancy cases.
They conduct inquests to determine cause of death and they serve as the first stop in the justice system for people who are jailed by the county. They set bond amounts.
They also perform marriages.
“I learned that there are a lot of duties that Justices of the Peace do on a daily basis,” Stagner said. “I’ve learned there are a little over 800 JPs in the state of Texas and less than 7 percent of them are attorneys.
“That’s why it’s the people’s court.”
A week in JP school was just the beginning for Stagner. He begins another 40-hour session Jan. 9 to give him the 80 hours of instruction required for newcomers to the job.
And then there’s 20 hours of continuing education per year.
“It’s been really interesting to learn all that’s involved with it,” he said.