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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.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

GOVERNMENT, natural and political law. The manner in which sovereignty is exercised in each state.
     2. There are three simple forms of government, the democratic, the aristocratic, and monarchical. But these three simple forms may be varied to infinity by the mixture and divisions of their different powers. Sometimes by the word government is understood the body of men, or the individual in the state, to whom is entrusted the executive power. It is taken in this sense when the government is spoken of in opposition to other bodies in the state.
     3. Governments are also divided into monarchical and republican; among the monarchical states may be classed empires, kingdoms, and others; in these the sovereignty resides in, a single individual. There are some monarchical states under the name of duchies, counties, and the like. Republican states are those where the sovereignty is in several persons. These are subdivided into aristocracies, where the power is exercised by a few persons of the first rank in the state; and democracies, which are those governments where the common people may exercise the highest powers. 1 Bouv. Inst. n. 20. See Aristocracy; Democracy; Despotism; Monarchy; Theocracy.
     4. It should be remembered, however, that governments, for the most part, have not been framed on models. Their parts and their powers grew out of occasional acts, prompted by some urgent expediency, or some private interest, which, in the course of time, coalesced and hardened into usages. These usages became the object of respect and the guide of conduct long before they were embodied in written laws. This subject is philosophically treated by Sir James McIntosh, in his History of England. See vol. 1, p. 71, et seq.

A Law Dictionary, Adapted to the Constitution and Laws of the United States. By John Bouvier. Published 1856.
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