PURPOSES.—The county organization brings justice near the people, enables them to attend to local affairs too extensive for a smaller community, and affords a medium by which they may transact business with the State. It serves as a convenient basis of apportioning members of the legislature among the people. It maintains local officers, such as sheriff and prosecuting attorney, whose duties would be too narrow if confined to a township. It secures a competent and higher tribunal than the justice’s court for the trial of suits at law. This was the original purpose, and is still the controlling reason for the division of the States into counties.
FORMATION, AREA.—Counties are formed, their rights are conferred, and their duties imposed, by act of the State legislature. In most States counties vary greatly in shape and size, but in some of the Western States they have a regular form. The average area of counties in the United States is eight hundred and thirty square miles; the average area of those east of the Mississippi River is only three hundred and eighty square miles.
COUNTY SEAT.—The county government resides at the county seat, county town, or shire town, as it is variously called. The court-house, the jail, the public offices, and sometimes other county buildings are located at the county seat. Here are kept the records of the courts; also, usually copies of the deeds, wills, mortgages, and other important papers of the people.
The county, like the United States, the State, and the township, has a republican form of government; that is, it is governed by representatives elected by the people. In nearly all States the county government has three departments, legislative, executive, and judicial; but the functions of making, of executing, and of explaining the laws, are not always kept separate and distinct. In a few States the county does not have a judicial department.
OFFICERS.—County officers and township officers have duties similar in kind, but the former have charge of the larger interests. The usual officers of the county are the commissioners or supervisors, the county attorney or prosecuting attorney, the county superintendent of schools or school commissioner, the sheriff, the treasurer, the auditor, the county clerk or common pleas clerk, the surveyor, the coroner, and the county judge and surrogate, or probate judge. In the counties of many States one or more of these officers are lacking, and others have different names from those here given. In the Western and the Southern States county officers are elected by the direct vote of the people; in most of the New England States some of them are chosen in other ways. The terms of county officers vary in different parts of the Union, being usually two, three, or four years; but in some States certain officers are elected for a longer term.