A political subdivision of a state, the power and importance of which varies from one state to another.
A county is distinguishable from a city or municipal corporation, since a municipal corporation has a dual character, both public and private, while a county is established by the state and is considered to be an agency thereof. Through home rule, a municipality may make certain decisions on matters of local concern, while a county is controlled by the state and does the work of state administration.
In the state of Louisiana, a state political subdivision is known as a parish. Comparable to counties, parishes have no independent existence apart from the state but possess only such authority as the state grants them.
The state constitution determines the procedures for the formation of a county. Certain states require a specific minimum size population or property value before a county is created. A county government that is too small can be either completely abolished or subject to a consolidation plan designed to merge urban and rural areas. Conversely, a county that becomes too large or diverse following an extended period of development can be divided by the state to form a new county.
The principle of sovereign immunity permits states to refuse to allow anyone to sue them. This doctrine protects counties from legal action to the same extent that the states they exist in are so protected. States and counties can only be sued where state law specifically permits it.
Ordinarily, the boundaries of a county are set by the state legislature. If a boundary is marked by a stream or river, the county extends to the center and remains there from the time of the county's creation, even if the stream subsequently changes course. When a lake is the boundary, the county line ordinarily extends to the bank or the low water mark. A boundary that is on the ocean extends to the three-mile limit offshore.
State law provides for the revision of the boundaries of counties. Certain state statutes proscribe the creation of a new county line too close to an already existing county seat. Ordinarily voters can petition for the expansion or division of a county where population and commercial growth justify it. Although citizens have no absolute right to prevent the alteration of county lines by state legislatures, the legislature cannot change boundaries for the purpose of diluting the voting power of some of the citizens in an election.
The state retains power to designate special districts for purposes of irrigation, flood control, fire protection, or library services, which do not affect the makeup of existing counties.
The government of a county is located at the county seat, a city or town where court sessions are held and duties are performed by county officers. The county board, comprised of public officials who are elected or appointed to serve on it, is the body that manages the government of the county. Other county officials include sheriffs, clerks, surveyors, and commissioners responsible for certain areas such as highways and human rights.
The state gives counties express authority to purchase and sell property and to raise funds from taxes, licenses, or bond issues. Counties have state-granted authority to make provisions for public health, safety, welfare, and morals of its residents through the enactment and enforcement of ordinances and regulations. The state, however, has the authority to make the decision whether to create courts on the county level or to use counties to designate intrastate judicial districts.
county [Fr., comté,=domain of a count], division of local government in the United States, Great Britain, and many Commonwealth countries. The county developed in England from the shire, a unit of local government that originated in the Saxon settlements of the 5th cent. By the 11th cent. the shire system was fully established throughout most of England, with each shire being ruled by a shire-reeve, or sheriff, appointed by the crown. By the 14th cent. the office of justice of the peace had developed; in each county a court of three or four justices, also appointed by the king, assisted the sheriff in the administration of local affairs. With the passage of the Local Government Act of 1888, power passed from the king's appointed officials to the newly created county councils, elected by local residents. The county system of government was adopted in most of the nations settled by the British.
In the United States there are some 3,100 counties (254 in Texas alone); most are rural or suburban, but except where, as in Virginia, a city may be independent (not part of a county), every part of a state is also part of a county. Some cities, like New York (where the five boroughs are also counties) comprise more than one county. Louisiana, influenced by the French, has instead parishes, which are essentially similar to counties; Alaska has boroughs. The major functions of county government in the United States include law enforcement, the recording of deeds and other documents, and the provision and maintenance of public works such as roads and parks. Some states, though, notably Connecticut, have abolished almost all county governmental functions.
See H. S. Duncombe, County Government in America (1966); J. C. Bollens, American County Government (1969).
coun·ty / ˈkountē/ • n. (pl. -ties) (in the U.S.) a political and administrative division of a state, providing certain local governmental services. ∎ a territorial division of some countries, forming the chief unit of local administration. ∎ [treated as sing. or pl.] the people of such a territorial division collectively. ∎ DERIVATIVES: coun·ty·wide adj. & adv.