November 3, 2021
by Bill Raftery
Yesterday was election day in Virginia. While most of the focus was on the race for governor, voters in several counties voted on their Clerks of [Circuit] Court. This raised a question that NCSC frequently receives: how many states elect their Clerks of Court?
To start with it should be noted that the practice of electing clerks of court is not new and dates to at least the Jeffersonian Era. The reasons for electing clerks vary but ultimately boil down to three elements.
- The Clerk of the Court is often ex officio the holder of other offices. For example, a Florida Circuit Court Clerk is also the Clerk of the Board of County Commissioners, Auditor, Recorder and Custodian of all county funds.
- The County Clerk or some other office is ex officio the Clerk of the Court. California’s 1879 constitution, for example, provided for this (“The County Clerks shall be ex officio Clerks of the Court of record in and for their respective counties or cities and counties.”) Washington state’s constitution provides that, for most counties, “The county clerk shall be by virtue of his office, clerk of the superior court.”
- The Clerk of the Court holds some judicial authority. At a time when judges “rode the circuit,” the county clerk would have some limited judicial authority. For example, North Carolina’s Clerk of [Superior] Court remains ex officio a judge of probate.
Many states have abandoned the practice of electing their Clerk of Court for their general jurisdiction courts, most recently California (Proposition 220 of 1998) and Delaware in 1989 (SB 109). Nevertheless, it remains the most common practice. Clerks are
- Elected in 27 states.
- Appointed (or hired) by the court in 18 states.
- Four other states use a mix where some counties are elected and some appointed (or hired) by the court.
- And North Dakota uses a mixture of everything including appointments by the county commission.
Details on which states use which methods can be found below.
|State/Court||Method of Selection||Term In Years|
|Delaware Court of Chancery & Superior||Appointed||n/a|
|Indiana Superior & Circuit||Elected||4|
|Massachusetts Superior Court||Elected||6|
|Missouri Circuit||Elected generally, appointed in ~5 counties||4|
|Nevada District||Elected generally, appointed in 1 independent city (Carson City)||4|
|New Hampshire Superior||Appointed||n/a|
|New Jersey Superior||Appointed||n/a|
|New Mexico District||Appointed||n/a|
|New York Supreme & County (outside of NYC)||Elected generally, appointed in 5 counties (NYC)||4|
|North Carolina Superior||Elected||4|
|North Dakota District||Appointed generally by court or by county commission. Elected in only 13 counties.||2 or 4 years|
|Ohio Court of Common Pleas||Elected||4|
|Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas||Elected||4|
|Rhode Island Superior||Appointed||n/a|
|South Carolina Circuit||Elected||4|
|South Dakota Circuit||Appointed||n/a|
|Washington Superior||Elected generally, appointed in 4 counties||4|
|West Virginia Circuit||Elected||6|
Are clerks in your state elected, appointed, or some combination? Share your experiences with us at Knowledge@ncsc.org or call 800-616-6164. Follow the National Center for State Courts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram , or Vimeo.