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Article Index

Chapter XIV

Counties and County Officers. Powers and Duties of County Officers.

§1. Some of the purposes for which a state is divided into small districts have been mentioned. (Chap. VII, §1.) There are other reasons, equally important, for these territorial divisions. Laws for the whole state are made by the legislature; but certain regulations may be necessary for the people in some parts of the state which are not needed in others, and which the people of these places can better make for themselves.

It is the business of the governor and his assistant executive state officers to execute or carry into effect the laws of the state; but they could not see this done in every place, or in every minute portion of the state. Again, for the convenience of those who may be obliged to go to law to obtain redress for injuries, courts of justice must be established near the residence of every citizen.

§2. But in order to carry out these objects, a state must be divided into small districts with fixed boundaries, that it may be known what persons come under certain regulations, and over whom these local officers are to exercise authority. The smallest territorial divisions of a state are called _townships_, or _towns_, which contain generally from twenty-five to one hundred square miles, and which, if in a square form, would be from five to ten miles square. But for certain purposes larger districts than townships have been found necessary. These are formed by the union of several townships, and are called _counties_. These divisions are the same as those of England, the country from which the colonies (now states) were chiefly settled.

§3. Counties in England were formerly districts governed by _counts_ or earls; from which comes the name of _county_. A county was also called _shire_; and an officer was appointed by the count or earl to perform certain acts in the principal town in the county, which was called _shire town_, and the officer was called _shire-reeve_, or _sheriff_, whose powers and duties were similar to those of the sheriff of a county in this country. The shire town is that in which the court-house and other county buildings are situate, and where the principal officers of the county transact their business. In a few counties there are two towns in which the courts are held alternately. Hence each division is called a _half-shire_.

§4. Counties and towns are bodies politic, or bodies corporate. _Corporate_ is from the Latin, _corpus_, which means _body_. A _corporation_, or body politic, is an association of persons authorized by law to transact business under a common name, and as a single person. The laws of the state give such authority to the inhabitants of counties and towns. The people of a town or county have power, to some extent, to manage their own internal affairs, and to make rules and regulations for their government; and they may buy, hold, and sell property, and sue and be sued, as an individual. Similar powers are given to rail-road, banking, insurance, and other incorporated companies. But there is in some respects a difference between these corporations and those which are created for purposes of government, as states, counties, towns, cities, and villages, which will be noticed in another place. (Chap. XVI.)

§5. As a county possesses various corporate powers, there must be among its officers some in whose name these powers are to be exercised. In some states there is a board of _county commissioners_, (usually three,) who exercise corporate powers. In a few, these powers are exercised by and in the name of the _board of supervisors_, which is composed of the supervisors of the several towns in the county, of whom there is one supervisor in each town. These boards, or such officers in other states as exercise these powers, have generally the power also to examine and settle the accounts against the county, and to make orders and contracts in relation to the building or repairing of the court-house, jail, and other county buildings; and to perform such other acts as the laws require.

§6. There is in each county a _treasurer_ to receive and pay out the moneys required to be collected and paid out in the county. There is also, in some states, a county _auditor_ to examine and adjust the accounts and debts of the county, and to perform certain other duties. The business of county treasurers and auditors in their respective counties, is of the same nature as that of state auditors and treasurers. In states in which there is no county auditor, the duties of auditor are performed by the treasurer, and some other county officer or officers.

§7. There is also in each county a _register_ or _recorder_, who records in books provided for that purpose, all deeds, mortgages, and other instruments of writing required by law to be recorded. In New York, and perhaps in some other states, the business of a register or recorder is done by a county clerk, who is also clerk of the several courts held in the county, and of certain boards of county officers. In some states, deeds, mortgages, and other written instruments, are recorded by the town clerks of the several towns.

§8. Another county officer is a _sheriff_, whose duty it is to attend all the courts held in the county; to execute all warrants, writs, and other process directed to him by the courts; to apprehend persons charged with crime; and to take charge of the jail and of the prisoners therein. It is his duty, also, to preserve the public peace; and he may cause all persons who break the public peace within his knowledge or view, to give bonds, with sureties, for keeping the peace, and for appearing at the next court to be held in the county, and to commit them to jail if they refuse to give such bonds. A sheriff is assisted by deputies.

§9. There are in each county one or more _coroners_, whose principal duty is, to inquire into the cause of the death of persons who have died by violence, or suddenly, and by means unknown. Notice of the death of a person having so died is given to a coroner, who goes to the place of such dead person. A jury is summoned to attend the examination; witnesses are examined; and the jury give their opinion in writing as to the cause and manner of the death. Such inquiry is called a _coroner's inquest_. In one or two states, the office of coroner, it is believed, does not exist; in which case the inquest is held by a justice of the peace, or some other officer.

§10. An attorney, elected or appointed for that purpose, attends all courts in which persons are tried in the county for crimes committed therein, and conducts the prosecutions in the trial of the offenders. In states where there is no attorney-general for the state, the prosecuting attorney for each county serves in this capacity, in trials in which the state is a party. As all crimes and breaches of the peace are considered as committed against the state, and prosecuted in its name, this attorney is sometimes called _state's attorney_.

§11. In some states there is a _county-surveyor_, whose duties within his county are similar in their nature to those of a state surveyor-general.

§12. County officers are generally elected by the people of the county. Some of them are, in some of the states, appointed by some authority prescribed by the constitution or laws of the state.