The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced legislation Wednesday that would combine Craighead County’s two judicial districts into one. Senate Bill 535 by Sen. John Cooper, R-Jonesboro, passed on a voice vote.
The county was split into two districts in 1883, which Cooper said “may have made sense back in the days of difficult travel and primitive communications, but now it doesn’t do anything except confuse county government.”
The western district is based in Jonesboro while the eastern district is in Lake City, which Cooper said is “15 miles from Jonesboro on a straight four-lane highway.”
The dual status is creating a dysfunctional county government, said Cooper. Testifying for the bill were Circuit Clerk Candace Edwards, County Assessor Hannah Towell, and Tax Collector Wes Eddington.
Under current law, Cooper said, the two districts are required to operate in essence as two counties within a county, with separate financial books, revenues and expenses. Neither is supposed to subsidize or detract from the other. Juries are selected only for the district in which they reside, adding difficulties in high-profile cases.
“This resets county government, the whole county government, putting back in the hands of elected officials the job that they were elected to do, because they are ultimately held responsible for the performance of those offices,” he said.
The confusion was increased by a 2003 law that calls for nonbinding elections of a deputy sheriff and deputy circuit court clerk who must reside and maintain offices in the Eastern District, Cooper said.
Those positions are employees of the elected officials but are encouraged by the current situation to believe they are independent and intentionally ignore elected officials, Cooper said.
“It amounts to a straw poll that makes a recommendation to the elected county officials that (are) supposed to be their superior. However, it’s grown to be the proverbial tail that wags the dog over these years,” he said.
The committee’s chairman, Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Little Rock, said his only concern with the bill was that it did not apply to the other 10 counties. Cooper said he had considered a broad bill but decided to limit it only to Craighead County because of its importance to the county.
Craighead County is one of 10 counties with two districts. The others are Arkansas, Carroll, Mississippi, Franklin, Yell, Prairie, Sebastian, Logan, and Clay, all split between 1875 and 1913, according to the Association of Arkansas Counties. Sebastian County is the state’s only county with two county seats.