Each of the seventy-five counties of Arkansas is governed by a quorum court. Members of the quorum court are called justices of the peace. They are chosen by the voters of their county in the general election in November of every even-numbered year.
Quorum courts are described in Article 7 of the Arkansas constitution. They “sit with and assist the County Judge in levying the county taxes, and in making appropriations for the expenses of the county.” Because the counties are divisions of the state, set by the Arkansas General Assembly for convenience in governing the state, the quorum courts are subject to the General Assembly and cannot exceed the authority given to them by the Arkansas General Assembly. Quorum courts fix the number and compensation of deputies and county employees and fill vacancies in elective county offices. The ordinances enacted by the quorum courts generally relate to property of the county and its maintenance and improvement. This includes county roads, bridges, buildings, vehicles, and whatever else the county government owns to serve the citizens of the county. Many Arkansans live in cities or towns, but those who do not reside in incorporated communities receive services instead from their county government, including police protection, road building and maintenance, and water.
Each quorum court is required by state law to meet monthly. The county judge chairs the meeting of the quorum court; the judge has no vote in the quorum court but can veto its decisions. The quorum court can overturn the judge’s veto with a three-fifths (sixty percent) vote of the entire membership of the court. The size of the quorum court varies by county: the smallest counties have nine justices of the peace, while others have eleven or thirteen, and Pulaski County—the largest county in Arkansas—has fifteen. Justices of the peace each serve one district of the county. District boundaries are established by the county’s election commission. Justices of the peace are paid per diem (per meeting) rather than receiving a general salary. Their pay scale is set by the Arkansas General Assembly, which establishes minimum and maximum pay depending upon the size of the county.
Quorum courts and county judges were part of Arkansas even during its time as a territory and have been described in all the constitutions of the state. As their names imply, quorum courts, justices of the peace, and county judges originally had more of a judicial function rather than the legislative work they now accomplish. The 1874 Constitution required that each county have one justice of the peace for every 200 voters, but the quorum court met only once each year. County judges ran the county government the rest of the year. By the middle of the twentieth century, this unwieldy system had given county judges nearly unlimited power within their counties, and various efforts began to reform Arkansas’s system of county government. The new constitution proposed in 1970 would have replaced the older system with the present system, but that constitution was not approved by the voters of Arkansas. Instead, the description of county government designed in the proposed constitution was submitted to the state’s voters in 1974 as Amendment 55 to the Constitution. It passed with 51.5 percent of the vote.
For additional information:
Blair, Diane D., and Jay Barth. Arkansas Politics and Government. 2nd ed. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005.
Goss, Kay C. The Arkansas Constitution: A Reference Guide. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1993.
Butler Center for Arkansas Studies
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