Counties and Their Governments
In pre-Revolutionary North Carolina, the county was the primary political and geographical unit. The colony relied heavily upon the county for the administration of local government. Justices of the peace, as a body or court, administered the affairs of the county. The justices were usually chosen from the ranks of the county’s wealthiest leaders. Independence from the British crown brought no major changes in this system. In the early days of statehood, the governor appointed justices. In making his appointments, however, the governor often relied on recommendations from the General Assembly. Members of the legislature had a powerful voice in the selection of justices of the peace for their county, a voice that also gave legislators a good deal of influence in the government at the county level.
Justices of the peace in each county formed a Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions. Any three justices, sitting together, constituted a quorum for the transaction of business. Justices typically met each January to select a chairman and five of their members to hold regular court session for the year. During their early existence, Courts of Pleas and Quarter Sessions appointed county sheriffs, coroners and constables. These offices later became elective positions with the sheriff and coroner elected from the county at large and constables from captain’s militia muster districts. Justices of the peace also appointed clerks of court, registers of deeds, county attorneys, county trustees or treasurer, county surveyors and wardens of the poor. Courts of Pleas and Quarter Sessions undertook judicial, as well as administrative, functions. The administrative duties included assessing and levying taxes; establishing and maintaining roads, bridges, and ferries; granting licenses to taverns and controlling food prices; and erecting and controlling mills. Through their power of appointment, justices supervised the work of law enforcement officers, administrative officers of the court, surveyors and the wardens of the poor. Sheriffs typically collected taxes. In their judicial capacity, Courts of Pleas and Quarter Sessions heard all civil cases except those assigned by law to a single justice or to a higher court. Courts of Pleas and Quarter Sessions adjudicated probate, dower and guardianship cases and administered estates. They had jurisdiction in criminal cases in which the punishment did not extend to life, limb or member.
The county itself was a single political unit. There were no townships and Courts of Pleas and Quarter Sessions, through their appointive and administrative powers, exerted strong control over county affairs. Voters effectively had no direct control over these courts, which meant they had no direct control over county government. This rather undemocratic arrangement continued until the end of the Civil War.
When the Constitution of North Carolina was rewritten in 1868, the drafters, many of whom were acquainted with local government systems in other parts of the country, devised a new and more democratic plan of organization for the counties. The position of justice of the peace was retained, but their powers were substantially reduced and the old Courts of Pleas and Quarter Sessions were eliminated. Judicial responsibilities were distributed between the justices and the North Carolina Superior Court, while the administrative powers justices had once exercised were assigned to county commissions composed of five members elected at large by each county’s voters. County commissions managed public buildings, schools, roads and bridges, and all county financial affairs, including taxation and collection. The wide appointive powers of the Courts of Pleas and Quarter Sessions were not transferred to the county commissions. Voters in each county now elected the sheriff, coroner, clerk of court, register of deeds, surveyor and treasurer. Sheriffs continued to serve as tax collector. Each county was divided into townships, a distinct innovation in North Carolina, and the voters of each township elected two justices of the peace and a clerk who served as the governing body of the township. The township board, under the direct supervision of its county commission, managed road and bridge construction, maintenance and repair. The township boards also conducted property assessments for taxation purposes. Each township had a constable and a school committee. The post-war changes in county government were designed initially to favor the Republican Party. The party’s base in North Carolina consisted at first of newly enfranchised blacks who had been slaves just three years before, as well as of poorer whites who had opposed secession and remained loyal to the Union throughout the Civil War. Ending the ability of justices of the peace to dominate county governments was meant to destroy forever the political power of the landowners, professional people and merchants who had dominated state government before the war and, in many cases, had led the secession movement. Most of the former ruling class had been disenfranchised by the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States because they had "engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the United States, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof" by actively supporting the Confederacy. These elites formed a new political party called the Conservative Party devoted to restoring as much of the pre-war social and governmental system as was possible under the circumstances. One of their primary targets was the new system of county government contained in the Constitution of 1868. Seven years after the signing of the Constitution of 1868 established county commissions and townships, political control of state government shifted back to the antebellum ruling class. They wasted little time in re-arranging the system of country government to retain that control permanently. A constitutional convention in 1875 amended the Constitution of North Carolina to allow the General Assembly to modify the plan of county government established in 1868.
The legislature was quick to exercise its newly-won authority. County commissions were not abolished outright, but their members would now be selected by each county’s justices of the peace rather than by vote of the people. And, while county commissions retained most of the administrative responsibilities entrusted to them in the 1868 constitution, their decisions on matters of substance required approval of the majority of county justices, all of whom were elected by the legislature. Justices of the peace administered all elections. In many counties, the board of commissioners was appointed by the state legislative. This troubling arrangement lasted for twenty years. The right of the people to elect county commissioners was restored in most counties in 1895. At the same time, the requirement that county commissions gain the approval of a majority of the county’s justices of the peace before their administrative decisions could be implemented was repealed. Townships were stripped of their powers, but they were retained as convenient administrative subdivisions, primarily for road building and maintenance purposes. Finally, in 1905 the people of all 100 counties in North Carolina regained direct control of their respective county commissions through the ballot box.
Counties remain a fundamental unit of local government in North Carolina to this day. They are not, however, completely independent entities. Nearly 50 years ago, a majority of the North Carolina Supreme Court had this to say about the relationship between counties and state government:
In the exercise of ordinary government functions, [counties] are simply agencies of the State, constituted for the convenience of local administration in certain portions of the State’s territory, and in the exercise of such functions they are subject to almost unlimited legislative control, except when the power is restricted by constitutional provisions.
This statement still adequately sums up the balance of power between counties and the state in North Carolina. If the General Assembly decides to assign counties any given power or responsibility and the state constitution does not specifically prohibit it, county administrations must accept the legislature’s decisions. The role counties play in administering policies set by the General Assembly, however, shifts almost constantly as successive generations of legislators adopt different policies and implementation strategies.
Financial emergency and stress have often led state legislators to re-examine of the allocation of governmental responsibilities between state and local governments. Until Governor Angus W. McLean’s administration (1925-1929), the state allowed counties, cities and other local units almost unlimited freedom to borrow money and issue bonds for various local purposes. Many counties, their commissions unsophisticated in matters of governmental finance, issued too much debt and saw their credit ratings drop to the point where they had to pay crippling rates of interest.
Some counties even faced bankruptcy because of their fiscal imprudence. Based on this experience and recognizing a statewide concern with excessive local debt, the legislature in 1927 established the County Government Advisory Commission, giving it the statutory authority necessary to correct the situation. This commission worked hard to reform local government financing throughout the state and its successor, the Local Government Commission, remains one of the bulwarks of North Carolina government today.
Experience with various local arrangements for road building and maintenance had a comparable effect on state policy. It is not accidental that North Carolina counties are no longer responsible for this work. Reflecting the concern of the people of the state, the General Assembly recognized that the state’s future economic interests dictated a coordinated transportation planning and construction effort on a scale far greater than any single county could undertake on its own. The legislators defined state policy on roads accordingly and the impetus for transportation planning and construction passed to the state.
Comparable re-definitions of the proper balance of responsibilities between state and county governments have become commonplace in the latter part of the 20th century. Responsibility for operating schools, conducting elections, housing the state’s system of lower courts and their records, maintaining property ownership and mortgage records, enforcing much of the state’s criminal law, administering public health and public welfare programs, and carrying on state programs designed to promote the development of agriculture has shifted, in large measure, between the county and the state level for much of this century. Some of these functions are the responsibility of county commissions, others are assigned to other county government boards that have varying relationships with their respective county commission. It appears clear, however, that North Carolina will continue to depend on its county governments to carry out a large number of essential governmental operations for the foreseeable future.Source: The North Carolina Manual