Each county in Arkansas has a county judge, who is the chief executive officer of the county, as well as several other countywide office holders including a quorum court (legislative body) made up of justices of the peace elected from single-member districts. The county judge is custodian of county property and public buildings.
Counties are essentially subdivisions of the state government. The Arkansas General Assembly controls them to the extent it desires, except as forbidden by state constitutional law. According to the Arkansas Supreme Court, a county is a political subdivision of the state established for a more convenient administration of justice and for purposes of providing services for the state.
The highest county executive office is that of county judge. Many of the county official terms have a judicial origin, hearkening back to when Arkansas was a very sparsely populated, rural, and agricultural state, and much of the justice system was local, administered by the county and presided over by the county judge. In those days, the Arkansas county judge had executive, legislative, and judicial powers. They were among the most powerful political leaders within the state—and even more so on a local and regional basis. Increasingly, through the years, counties gained checks and balances, and county judges, after the 1974 state constitutional amendment on counties, had only executive powers, fairly typical of county executives in other states. However, the county judge is still the highest county office, though there is no power over other county executive officers, such as sheriff, county clerk, circuit clerk, treasurer, assessor, collector, and coroner.
For many years, county judges were limited to $5,000 per year in annual salary. Many counties supplemented this salary with expense accounts for paying salaries and office assistance and fees in connection with serving as road commissioner for the county. Since 1974, these salaries are set according to population, with maximum and minimum salary levels, giving counties some flexibility within each of the categories.
To serve as county judge, a person has to be at least twenty-five years of age, although most are accomplished professionals by the time they obtain election to the office. Ray Francis of Malvern (Hot Spring County) and Wilbur D. Mills of Kensett (White County), however, were only twenty-five years of age at the time they began serving. Marilyn Edwards was elected the county judge in Washington County in 2008, but few women have served as county judge in Arkansas. Following Reconstruction, the office of county judge was usually reserved—through the “fusion” system—for a white, Democratic candidate, though J. P. Jones of Desha County, an African American, served from 1890 to 1892.
County judges in Arkansas have served for decades as one of the strongest political forces in the state. In fact, Bill Clinton often said that county judges served as the foundation of his political base.
Arkansas has had some celebrity county judges, such as baseball player Lon Warneke, who served in Garland County from 1963 to 1972. Some county judges have become institutions in their own rights due to long service and/or strength of personality, most notably Ben Geren of Sebastian County, Joe Henslee of Jefferson County, J. L. Erwin of Desha County, and Roy C. “Red” Bearden of Craighead County.
For additional information:
Alexander, Henry M. Government in Arkansas: Organization and Function at State, County, and Municipal Levels. Little Rock: Pioneer Press, 1963.
Blair, Diane, 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.
Kay C. Goss