Is Blytheville a county seat and does it really matter?

as published on Friday, December 23, 2016

Blytheville residents have had a courthouse to see, visit, touch and do business in since around 1901. In fact there has been two over the years and the “three-and-a half story, cut-sandstone and brick structure designed in the colonial revival style” that we currently see at 200 West Walnut was built in 1919 by the Pine Bluff architectural firm of Selligman and Ellesvard.
Our very own eyes have seen that building for years and have also seen generations of government business being conducted in that building. Those two things that they have seen have caused just about everyone to think that Mississippi County has dual county seats. But does it?
Arkansas Attorney General Opinion 117 (2006) states, “It does not appear to be the case that a county that has two judicial districts will necessarily have two ‘county seats’.” Perhaps another way to say it is that because all “county seats” and “court seats” must host all of the judicial functions and many of the governmental functions by state mandate, not all “court seats” are “county seats” but all “county seats” are “court seats”.
Adding to the confusion is the fact that all State of Arkansas maps and many State of Arkansas documents even list Mississippi County as one of 10 dual-county seat counties. The full list of the 10 counties includes: Arkansas (founded in 1813), Carroll (1833), Mississippi (1833), Franklin (1837), Yell (1840), Prairie (1846), Sebastian (1851), Logan (1871), Clay (1873) and Craighead (1859).
Indications are the only legitimately “dual county seat” county is Sebastian County. Their special status has been written into the Arkansas Constitution but none of the other nine have. It appears Blytheville is not a county seat; it is still just a “court seat”. But changing that may be easier than you’d at first expect.
So, since the current dual courthouse system has been in operation for over 115 years in Mississippi County, why does it even matter if Blytheville is a “county seat” or just a “court seat”?
It matters because the City of Osceola, in their successful petition to stop the last scheduled special election over the courthouse matter scheduled for August 9, 2016, in item number 32(d) stated, “Blytheville Arkansas is not a County Seat of Mississippi County, Arkansas, and thus the Construction of a Courthouse in Blytheville, Arkansas to be funded by taxation on Plaintiff Baker, Plaintiff Polock, and Taxpayers of Osceola, Arkansas, the Osceola Judicial District and Mississippi County, Arkansas, is Unlawful”.
Retired Judge David Laser apparently agreed with the City of Osceola because he had deep concerns about the ordinances taking Osceola District tax revenue to pay for a courthouse in the Chickasawba District. That concern would, by definition, be null and void IF the Blytheville Courthouse was the county seat rather than a “court seat”.
How so? To understand that, we must identify what a “county seat” is. A county seat is “the principal site” for conducting county business, as well as the storage of certain records.
How are they created? They are created in only two ways: by the Arkansas General Assembly when a new county is created or at the ballot box by a simple majority of county voters.
The Arkansas Constitution, Article 13, Section 3, prescribes: “No county seat shall be established or changed without the consent of a majority of the qualified voters of the county to be affected by such change, nor until the place at which it is proposed to establish or change such county seat shall be fully designated…”
This is also codified in Ark. Code Ann. § 14-14-302: “(a) Unless for the purpose of the temporary location of county seats in the formation of new counties, it shall be unlawful to establish or change any county seat in this state without the consent of a majority of the qualified voters of the county to be affected by the change; nor will a county seat be located until the place at which it is proposed to establish or change any county seat shall be fully designated…”
Mississippi County was created by an Act of the Territorial Legislature on November 1, 1833 and was named for the Mississippi River. It was carved, in part, out of Crittenden County.
Upon creation of the county, the Territorial Legislature named Osceola as the county seat. Osceola got its name in honor of the famous Native American Chief Osceola.
According to the late Osceola native Mabel F. Edrington’s book The History of Mississippi County, Arkansas, “Peter Reeves’ was distinguished as the place where court was held at his house. It was a common thing to adjourn court to go out and kill a passing bear. Many people told also of being trailed by wolves, panthers and other wild animals. Courage was a requisite for these early pioneers, for this rough life called for intestinal fortitude, as well as a spirit of adventure, for clearing huge forests of impassable growth filled with infested swamps, in making way for human habitation.”
It wasn’t until 1912 that the current domed, classical revival style Osceola Courthouse, located at 200 West Hale, was built on a one acre plot of land approximately that had been donated for that purpose by the County Judge (at the time) William J. Driver. The building was designed by architect John Gainsford and built by Falls Construction Company.
So how was Blytheville selected to be the location of the new courthouse? As we all know, Mississippi County is very large geographically and we must remember that the county was nearly impassable at the time. In fact, old maps of the area label most of the county as “The Great Swamp”. Therefore it was nearly impossible for citizens living in the Blytheville or Manila areas to travel all the way to Osceola during much of the year. And when they did go, it took at least an entire day to get there. Therefore, the Arkansas General Assembly of 1901 enacted Act 81 which established two judicial districts in Mississippi County: the existing Osceola District and the Chickasawba District (to be created by January 1, 1902). As an additional measure of clarification, Section 3, section 4, section 5, section 8 and section 23 each call Osceola “the county seat”.
Additionally, multiple Sections (6, 7, 15, 16 and 17) of the Act prescribe that all judicial courts are to function as if the Osceola and Chickasawba Districts were separate counties, but in multiple places prescribe that governmental functions of the county remain united. This is done by repeatedly stating that county officials are the authority over the entire county, regardless of the judicial district, and also ordering that some county officers must maintain an office at both courthouses in fulfillment of their duties.
Section 4 states, “the circuit, chancery and probate courts of Mississippi County in and for the Chickasawba District shall beholden the same number of sessions in either the towns of Manila or Blythesville [sic], as a place to be hereafter provided by the citizens of said Chickasawba District, as by law said courts are now required to be held at the county seat, the choice between said towns of Manila and Blythesville [sic] to be settled by the majority of the electors of the Chickasawba District voting at an election to be held for the purpose of locating the place for holding said courts in said Chickasawba District”.
Section 23 requires that “on or before the first Monday in January, 1902 there shall be erected a court house on the site in the court seat of the Chickasawba District hereafter to be selected by commissioners provided for in this Act free of expense to the taxpayers of Mississippi County…and all business pertaining to the said courts shall be transacted and conducted in all respects as is by law required at the county seat of Mississippi County.
Section 24 states, “That the county judge of Mississippi County shall immediately after the passage of this Act appoint commissioners to select a site for the court house in the town of the court seat of the Chickasawba District as provided in section 23 of this Act, and …there shall be held in the voting precincts of the townships, or parts of townships, in the territory composing said Chickasawba District as hereinbefore described as [an] election by the qualified electors of said territory to determine whether the court seat of the Chickasawba District shall be located at Manila or Blytheville therein…That some one in behalf of each of the towns of Manila and Blythesville (sic) shall within ten days after the approval of this Act enter into bond in the sum of two thousands dollars to the State of Arkansas for the use and benefit of Mississippi County, with good security to be approved by the county judge of said county, conditioned that the obligors in said bond shall cause to be erected, free of expense to the taxpayers of Mississippi County by January 1, 1902, a court house to cost not less than two thousand dollars within said town, if said town shall be designated as the court seat for the Chickasawba District by a majority of the electors voting at the election to locate a court seat for said district provided for in this Act.”
Therefore in 1901, voters went to the poll to decide the question of where the “court seat” of the Chickasawba District would be located. It was a very hotly contested election and numerous records, including University of Arkansas Historian Jeannie Whayne’s book Delta Empire, indicate that “The roots of this ill feeling go back to 1901 when an election was held … to decide whether the City of Manila or the City of Blytheville would be the county seat for the northern portion of Mississippi County. Manila appeared to have won the election, but after a celebrated election contest held in the courthouse in Osceola, Blytheville was declared the winner. Whether the victory was legitimate or the election stolen, Blytheville was almost certainly a better choice, for at the time the people of Buffalo Island were practically isolated from the rest of the county.”
Legend, though the CN could not find a source to corroborate the story, has been that there was so much cheating done that the colorful County Judge L.D. Rozelle of Osceola threw out the votes in both Blytheville and Manila and that the votes from the new town of Armorel, founded in 1899 by R.E.L. Wilson, gave the victory to Blytheville.
According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, local governments in Arkansas at the time operated under Dillon’s law and county judges at the time still held executive, legislative and judicial powers.
Therefore, with Blytheville being declared the winner of the election, the city leaders went about the business of selecting a site and building the first courthouse in Blytheville before the 1902 deadline.
Recently, the city of Osceola, in its lawsuit, sent a FOIA request to the county, and one of the items requested was proof that an election had taken place making Blytheville a county seat, instead of a court seat.
An election was never held for that purpose.
And the rest is prologue or is it?

 

So if Blytheville is not a “county seat” does that mean that a new courthouse cannot be built? Absolutely not. The designation of “county seat” or “court seat” makes no matter whatsoever, because either designations require a courthouse to operate in both cities.

Can the county seat be changed? Yes. If a citizen of Mississippi County circulated a petition with signatures equaling at least 15 percent of the number of voters in the last Gubernatorial election, then the County Court is required to call for a special election on the question of creating/removing a county seat. [See Walsh v. Hampton, 132 S.W. 214, 216 (1910) and Ark. Code Ann. § 14-14-303 (1987)]. In 2014, 10,230 voters in Mississippi County voted in the Gubernatorial race. Therefore a petition, if circulated today, would require 1,535 signatures.

Keeping in mind that two judicial districts require two courthouses, what is the process for consolidating judicial districts in the event that a county, for fiscal reasons, desired to operate just one courthouse?

The power to create judicial districts lies exclusively with the Arkansas General Assembly. Amendment 80, Section 10 of the Arkansas Constitution, states, “The General Assembly shall have the power to establish jurisdiction of all courts and venue of all actions therein, unless otherwise provided in this Constitution and the power to establish judicial circuits and districts and the number of judges for Circuit Courts and District Courts, provided such circuits or districts are comprised of contiguous territories.”

Therefore, since they are created solely by the General Assembly, then the power to eliminate them would also lie solely with our state legislators.

About Tom Henry 133 Articles

My Biography

I have been fortunate to have held a number of very interesting and diverse jobs over the years. Those jobs have ranged from being a newspaper reporter (twice), restaurant and retail single unit store manager (numerous), restaurant multi-unit manager, a Christian bookstore manager, an online hospitality management recruiter and pastor. I have been used numerous times to turn troubled stores into profitable stores with double digit increases in sales and national top ten rankings (multiple times). God has gifted me with talents, experiences and spiritual gifting that allows me to get “right to the root of the problem” very quickly.

Additionally, I have three college degrees including a Master of Arts in history from Arkansas State University in Jonesboro and Arkansas Northeastern College in Blytheville.

I spend all of my non-work time with the sweetest woman I’ve ever met, Carol. Together we have four children (ranging in age from 19 to 25). She is without a doubt the answer to many years of fervent prayer. I have never been happier than I am now.

In my free time, I enjoy writing, reading, traveling (especially to historic/civil war sites), learning, intellectual discussion and singing/deejaying. Carol and I live an hour north of Memphis and love to go “walking in Memphis, ten feet off of Beale”.

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