FAYETTEVILLE -- Counties can reduce the number of townships and, therefore, the number of constables, the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
In March 2013, then-Washington County Judge Marilyn Edwards, acting in her capacity as the County Court, entered an order reducing the number of townships and constable positions from 15 to three. The county court is the county judge sitting in a judicial role.
In August 2019, former Constable Tom Clowers of Springdale sued Edwards, who was no longer judge, County Judge Joseph Wood and other former and current Washington County officials, counsel for the Arkansas Association of Counties and three state officials.
Clowers contended Edwards' order was illegal because constable positions may be changed only by a direct vote of the people.
Clowers sought to imprison Edwards for election fraud, claiming she criminally eliminated the constable positions, as well as the defendants accused of colluding with her. Clowers asked the circuit court to repeal a constitutional amendment Edwards relied on, to declare the previous elections under the order invalid and to enjoin the next election. He also sought over a million dollars in relief and punitive damages.
Circuit Judge Doug Martin threw the case out, and Clowers appealed.
The Supreme Court on Thursday agreed with Martin's ruling. Justices said the authority to abolish or alter township lines is statutorily vested in the county court.
"The county court order at the center of this case was a lawful exercise of authority. Judge Edwards entered the order in her capacity as the presiding judicial officer over the Washington County Court," justices wrote in their opinion. "By abolishing 12 townships, the county court reduced the number of townships and constable positions to three. The three new townships collectively encompass the entire county. And there remains a constable position in each of the three townships, which is what the law requires."
The Arkansas Constitution says voters in each township shall elect the constable for a term of two years.
The Supreme Court noted Clowers' appeal failed to address several required elements. He failed to address the lower court ruling that the statute of limitations had expired by the time he sued. Clowers offered no argument for reversal of the lower court ruling that the defendants had various governmental immunity from being sued.
Josephine Linker Hart issued a dissenting opinion arguing Edwards' action was illegal without a vote of the people.
"Mr. Clowers's main legal point is that the local government eliminated his job without a vote of the people who elected him, in violation of the Arkansas Constitution. He's right about that," Linker wrote. "The majority addresses this question, but somehow reaches an alternative (and in my opinion, incorrect) conclusion."
The Arkansas Constitution, Linker argued, provides that a county's Quorum Court "may create, consolidate, separate, revise or abandon any elective county office or offices except during the term thereof; provided, however, that a majority of those voting on the question at a general election have approved said action."
Clowers was a Washington County constable for 14 years, before he lost in the 2012 election.
Clowers was arrested after the Benton County Sheriff 's Office received a complaint from Chris Snider, who said he was stopped Jan. 18, 2013, and became concerned the person wasn't a law enforcement officer, according to county court documents.
Snider claimed the person who stopped him had emergency lights on his vehicle and wore a jacket with a sewn-on badge. The person left the scene when he asked for his identification, according to an affidavit.
Clowers was arrested on a felony charge of impersonating a law enforcement officer and a misdemeanor charge of misuse of police lights.
Clowers admitted in an October 2013 plea bargain he had emergency lights on his vehicle, but denied he pulled anyone over in a traffic stop earlier that year.
Prosecutors dropped a felony charge of first-degree criminal impersonation. Clowers pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and was fined $920.
Clowers turned around and in November 2015 sued 16 law enforcement officers, judges and prosecutors. Clowers, who was representing himself, contended the arrest was bogus and defamed him.
A federal judge threw the case out in October 2016 because it failed to state a valid claim.
Clowers claimed in the federal lawsuit he accepted the guilty plea to put the matter behind him and the case was later expunged.
Then-State Sen. Sue Madison, D-Fayetteville, filed a joint resolution January 2011 to abolish the antiquated office of constable in Arkansas.
It was the third consecutive regular session of the Legislature in which a resolution was filed to abolish constables. The measure failed to gain traction.
To abolish the office, the Legislature would have to refer a proposed amendment to the voters. The Legislature can refer three proposed amendments from each biennial session, but abolishing constables hasn't made the cut because other things were deemed more important.
Constables were essential law enforcement officers in 1874 when Arkansas' fifth constitution, the one used today, was drafted.
What’s a constable?
The position of constable is a constitutional office and there are no specific requirements. Some constables are certified law enforcement officers, which includes training, and some are not. Those constables with certification have the authority to make traffic stops, arrest people and keep the peace in their townships. In Arkansas, prior to Act 841 being signed into law by Gov. Mike Beebe in April 2007, constables were not required to have training or wear uniforms. The law provides for training standards, a statewide standard uniform and identification. Although constables are elected officials, most are not paid salaries. Washington County Constables are paid $7.50 per year. Training, uniforms, equipment and all other expenses are paid for from the individual constable’s pockets.
Ron Wood can be reached by email at email@example.com or on Twitter @NWARDW.