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4 Arkansas counties to lose justice of the peace seats over population loss

by Stephen Simpson | January 16, 2022 at 3:40 a.m.
The Phillips County Courthouse in Helena-West Helena is shown in this April 2012 file photo. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staton Breidenthal)

Four Arkansas counties will lose a total of eight justice of the peace positions beginning in 2023 because of a state law that bases the number of a county's quorum court members on the county's population.

Shelby Johnson, geographic information officer for the Arkansas Geographic Information Systems Office, said Ashley, Crittenden, Phillips and Polk counties will reduce their justice of the peace districts by two each.

"It's going to be an interesting new decade," Phillips County's County Judge Clark Hall said. "Because of the drop in population, we have had to rearrange the whole Quorum Court. The nine seats remaining have been totally rearranged with new rules and margins for deviation. It has changed a lot of our districts up, and Quorum Court members have to run against each other. It's a tragedy, but it's the way things go."

Arkansas law states that the number of quorum court districts per county in Arkansas is based upon population ranges. Apportionment of those districts is the responsibility of the county board of election commissioners and is based on federal decennial census information.

The U.S. Constitution requires a census every 10 years. The most recent one took place in 2020, and the results were announced last year. Since then, U.S. House and state legislative districts have been redrawn based on how the population changed.

Justices of the peace serve on quorum courts, the legislative body of counties. The county judge is a county's top executive.

Josh Curtis, governmental affairs director for the Association of Arkansas Counties, said that while a multitude of counties saw a drop in population and might be dropped in classification, the drop must be pretty steep for a county to lose two justice of the peace positions.

[JUSTICES OF THE PEACE: See an interactive Arkansas map with justices of the peace in each county »]

"Those who this affects should have been made aware of it last year," he said.

The number of justices of the peace in a county falls in these population ranges:

• Nine positions in counties with populations up to 19,000.

• 11 positions for populations of 20,000 to 49,999.

• 13 positions for populations of 50,000 to 199,999.

• 15 positions when the population is more than 200,000.

This law means that Arkansas will have a total of 775 justice of the peace positions on the basis of the 2020 census, a decrease from the 783 positions after the 2010 census.

This despite the fact that Arkansas' population grew, from 2,915,918 in the 2010 census to 3,011,524 in 2020.

There are no counties gaining justice of the peace positions this decade.

Johnson said the state Board of Apportionment is required to provide the population information to the counties within 90 days of receiving it from the U.S. Census Bureau.

"However, in the modern age, with the Census publicizing the population data online it's immediately accessible; and the counties are aware of the impact when the Census occurs, and that's why several County Judges were involved in leading the 2020 Census Complete Count committee," he said in an email. "So the counties were probably looking at those numbers within a few days after it was published."

The change will apply to justices of the peace elected this year.

"[S]o the current JP members will serve the remainder of their current term until the next election is held and new JPs are sworn into office," Johnson said.

He said that because of the law, some citizens who have developed relationships with their justices of the peace over the past decade may lose them.

"[B]ecause if a County is moving from 11 JPs down to 9 JPs, then that means some of the existing members would have to be drawn into the same district," he said. "Assuming both incumbents ran against each other, one of them will not be re-elected. The opposite would be true if a county jumped up in class."


Hall said he was expecting the drop in justice of the peace positions.

"I have been keeping track of it for several years," he said. "We have been losing population for 20 years, but I also think they miscounted us this year by 1,000, but we can't afford a recount."

Hall said he was estimating Phillips County's population to fall from 21,757 to somewhere around 17,500, but the 2020 census total was 16,568.

"It was a shock," he said. "We did what we had to do with the numbers that have been given to us. We have been working with the state and created a viable map."

Ashley County's County Judge Jim Hudson said justices of the peace there are planning to have public hearings on redistricting soon when the new districts are mapped out.

"Then we will decide who goes where and which Quorum Court members will be losing their spot," he said.

Ashley County's population dropped from 21,853 in 2010 to 19,062 in 2020.

County Judge Woody Wheeless said Crittenden County, which is going from 13 to 11 districts, has already redrawn the lines and is in a 30-day waiting period.

"We were anticipating this," he said. "We were only 500 people over 50,000 at the time, and I believe we fell about 1,800 people."

Crittenden County's population dropped from 50,902 in 2010 to 48,163 in 2020.

Wheeless said he believes probably half of the county is aware of the coming changes.

"This is the first of the year, and we will put it out there soon and let them know and give them the rest of this year to be aware of what is happening," he said.

County Judge Brandon Ellison said Polk County hired an outside company to redraw the area from 11 to nine districts.

"That won't go into effect until next year, but we have a primary in May, and that is when the nine new district seats will be vied for," he said.

The general election is Nov. 8.

Polk County's population dropped from 20,662 in 2010 to 19,221 in 2020.

Ellison said like most of the counties that have lost justice of the peace positions, the decline in population in his county wasn't a complete surprise.

"We were kind of on the bubble beforehand," he said. "I will say that 2020-21 probably wasn't a great year for the census, and most rural counties lost population. We lost 6%, and that put us under."

Print Headline: Lost population paring 4 counties' JP positions


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