PA State Archives Hours, Directions, & Fees Research Topics Finding Aids for Collections Land Records

 

 

 



Pennsylvania State Archives



County Office Descriptions


PROTHONOTARY

The prothonotary or chief notary is the officer responsible for maintaining the records of the civil division of the court of common pleas in each judicial district. These records relate to civil proceedings, divorce, equity and also include various types of reports filed by the county, municipal governments and school districts.

The 1682 Frame of Government made provision for the erection of county courts. Before 1707, the single county court in each of the three original Pennsylvania counties of Bucks, Chester and Philadelphia was responsible for most local governmental functions, These courts had jurisdiction over civil, criminal and equity cases and also dealt with the settlement of estates and the care of orphans. The judges also had a number of administrative responsibilities such as levying taxes, managing finances, overseeing poor relief, constructing and maintaining roads and bridges, approving and issuing tavern and peddler licenses, and establishing township boundaries.

In 1707, Governor John Evans' ordinance established two separate courts in each county - quarter sessions and oyer and terminer to hear criminal cases and deal with administrative matters, and common pleas to hear civil and equity cases. The term " prothonotary" appeared for the first time in this ordinance, and it was ordered that all writs and processes of the court of common pleas were to issue out of his office under the county seal and all returns were to be made to that office. A number of early laws defined the officer's duties and responsibilities. Numerous laws were passed during the provincial period and in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries which continued this basic judicial structure on the county level with occasional jurisdictional changes.

Under the Constitution of 1968, the judiciary of the State was reorganized under a Unified Judicial System with the Supreme Court overseeing its operations. In each judicial district, the county courts were combined into a single common pleas court. This court exercises the jurisdiction previously vested in the courts of common pleas, quarter sessions of the peace and oyer and terminer, and the orphans' court. These now constitute divisions of each court of common pleas - civil, criminal and orphans' court.

Before the 1701 Charter of Privileges, there was no clear indication how the clerk of each county court. was chosen or his length of service. That document provided that each county's justices nominate three people, one of whom would be selected by the governor to be "clerk of the peace." This person also served as prothonotary when that office was established, The 1790 Constitution vested that power in the governor alone. It was not until the Constitution of 1838 that the office became elective with the individual serving a three year term, The Constitution of 1873 continued that practice, but a 1909 amendment increased the term to four years.

According to the 1838 Constitution, the legislature was authorized to provide for the number of persons in each county who could hold the various recording offices, An 1839 law formalized the division of the offices, and the county codes now provide for how the offices shall be filled depending upon the classification of the county. In the six home rule counties, the prothonotaries are either elected or appointed. Although they may be called the clerk of records or director of court services and their responsibilities may include other recording functions, these officers or their deputies have essentially the same duties in regard to the civil division as prothonotaries in the other counties.

The prothonotary is the custodian of the records, dockets and indexes of the civil division of the court of common pleas Such records in civil matters at law or equity relate to change of name, condemnation, declaratory judgments, divorce and annulment, domestic relations, ejectment and eviction, fictitious names, foreclosure, involuntary dissolution, judgments and liens, mental health commitments, non-profit corporations, protection from abuse, quiet title, and trust inter vivos. Various reports are filed in the office by county, municipal and school district officials. The prothonotary also keeps naturalization records and processes passport applications, At one time, this officer also maintained occupational registers for attorneys, dentists, midwives, optometrists, physicians, and veterinary surgeons as well as dockets to register automobiles, dogs and stallions.


Return to: RG-47 County Government (Originals) | RG-47 County Government (Microfilm)

CLERK OF THE ORPHANS' COURT

The clerk of the orphans' court is the officer responsible for maintaining the records of the orphans' court division of the court of common pleas in each judicial district. These records relate to the administration of estates, adoptions, guardianships and trusteeships, marriages and delayed birth registrations.

The 1682 Frame of Government made provision for the erection of county courts. Before 1707, the single county court in each of the three original Pennsylvania counties of Bucks, Chester and Philadelphia was responsible for most local governmental functions, These courts had jurisdiction over civil, criminal and equity cases and also dealt with the settlement of estates and the care of orphans. This latter function had been established in 1683 when the regular justices of the county court had been authorized to sit twice a year as presiding judges of the orphans' court. Based on an English court of the same name which had jurisdiction over the property of minors, the early orphans' courts were charged with the care of the estates and employment of orphans.

In 1707, Governor John Evans' ordinance established two separate courts in each county - quarter sessions and oyer and terminer to hear criminal cases and deal with administrative matters, and common pleas to hear civil and equity cases, A 1713 law provided that the justices of the quarter sessions court in each county hold the orphans' court, but later legislation ordered common pleas judges to preside over the court. The 1873 Constitution gave the Assembly the authority to create separate orphans' courts with their own judges. The register's court which had been created in 1790 was abolished, and its jurisdiction in probate disputes was transferred to the orphans' court.

Under the Constitution of 1968, the judiciary of the State was reorganized as a Unified Judicial System with the Supreme Court overseeing its operations. In each judicial district in this system, the county courts were combined into a single common pleas court. This court exercises the jurisdiction previously vested in the courts of common pleas, quarter sessions of the peace and oyer and terminer, and the orphans' court. These now constitute divisions of each court of common pleas - civil, criminal and orphans' court.

Before 1834 when a law was passed authorizing the commissioning of a clerk for the orphans' court in each county, the same person usually served as clerk of all the courts. Prior to the Constitution of 1838, the clerks were appointed by the governor, With the adoption of that Constitution, the office became elective with the individual serving a three year term, The Constitution of 1873 continued that practice, but a 1909 amendment increased the term to four years.

According to the 1838 Constitution, the legislature was authorized to provide for the number of persons in each county who could hold the various recording offices. An 1839 law formalized the division of the offices, and the county codes now provide for how the offices shall be filled depending upon the classification of the county. In many counties, the register of .wills also serves as clerk of the orphans' court. In the six home rule counties, the clerks are either elected or appointed. Although they may be called the clerk of records or director of court services and their responsibilities may include other recording functions, these officers or their deputies have essentially the same duties in regard to the orphans' court division as clerks in the other counties.

The clerk of the orphans' court is the custodian of the papers, dockets and indexes of that division. Records maintained by the clerk include those pertaining to the administration of decedent's estates, adoption proceedings, guardianships and trusteeships, marriage returns and delayed birth registrations. Other miscellaneous records may be kept without specific statutory requirements resulting from local rules of court in a specific county.


Return to: RG-47 County Government (Originals) | RG-47 County Government (Microfilm)

REGISTER OF WILLS

The register of wills is the officer responsible for maintaining the records relating to the probate of wills and the granting of letters of administration and testamentary, Acting as the Commonwealth's agent the register is also responsible for collecting State inheritance taxes.

Early laws do not reveal the origin of the office, but a stipulation among the laws agreed upon in England, required that a marriage register be kept in the office of "the proper register of the county." In 1682, a register-general was appointed and kept an office in Philadelphia. Deputies were commissioned to serve in the counties. A 1683 statute set forth the duties of this officer and required him to register births, deaths, marriages, bond servants, wills and letters of administration. A year later, he was also charged with registering all freemen entering the county, A 1700 law setting forth a fee schedule for officers mentioned a register-general, and another passed in 1701 required the register-general or his deputy to assist the justices of each county court when they presided over orphans' court.

In 1706, a statute concerning probate of wills authorized the governor to commission a register-general for the probate of wills and granting of letters of administration. He was required to maintain his office in Philadelphia and was empowered to appoint a "sufficient deputy" to officiate in each of the other counties. Usually he appointed the same individual who was serving as recorder of deeds and clerk of the courts. This arrangement remained in effect until 1776 when the constitution provided that a register's office for the probate of wills and granting of letters of administration be set up in each city and county with the officers being appointed by the General Assembly. In 1777, the office of register-general was abolished. The 1790 Constitution provided that a register's office should be kept in each county and vested the officer's appointment in the governor. It also created a register's court composed of the judges of the court of common pleas and the register which was charged with settling disputes in probate matters, this court. was abolished in 1873 and its jurisdiction was transferred to the orphans' court, It was not until the Constitution of 1838 that the office of register became elective with the individual serving a three year term. The Constitution of 1873 continued that practice, but a 1909 amendment increased the term to four years.

According to the Constitution of 1838, the legislature was authorized to provide for the number of persons in each county who could hold the various recording offices. A law of 1839 formalized the division of the offices, and the county codes now provide for how the offices shall be filled depending upon the classification of the county. In many counties, the register of wills also serves as the clerk of the orphans' court. In the six home rule counties, officers performing the register's functions are either elected or appointed. Although they may be called the clerk of records or director of court services and their responsibilities may include other recording functions, they or their deputies have essentially the same duties in regard to the probate process as registers in the other counties.

The register of wills is the custodian of the records relating to probate including wills and letters of administration; estate inventories; inheritance tax records; administrator, trustee and guardian bonds; executor and administrator oaths; and various kinds of reports. If a caveat is entered against probate, the register certifies the record to the orphans' court division of the court of common pleas. This officer is also authorized to issue subpoenas and citations and has the power to revoke letters of administration.


Return to: RG-47 County Government (Originals) | RG-47 County Government (Microfilm)

CORONER

The coroner is the officer responsible for investigating sudden, suspicious or violent deaths in the county. Duties include issuing certificates indicating probable cause of death, holding inquests if necessary, and overseeing the county morgue.

Under the Frames of Government of 1682 and 1683, the freemen of each county annually nominated two individuals, and the governor appointed one to serve as the coroner. The Charter of Privileges of 1701 increased the term to three years, but a 1706 law again provided for annual appointments. The Constitution of 1776 continued the nomination procedure, but the President-in-Council appointed the coroner annually. The Constitution of 1790 provided for appointment by the governor every three years, and it was not until 1838 and the adoption of a new constitution that the office became elective, The three year term continued until 1909 when a constitutional amendment increased it to four years. In the six home rule counties the coroners/medical examiners are either elected or appointed and have essentially the same duties as the coroners in the other counties.

With the chief duty of investigating suspicious deaths, the coroner is authorized to perform autopsies, hold inquests, summon jurors and subpoena witnesses. Records maintained by the coroner usually include dockets and investigatory files generally consisting of autopsy and toxicology reports, correspondence, inquisition sheets, lists of personal effects, notes, photographs and summary reports.


Return to: RG-47 County Government (Originals) | RG-47 County Government (Microfilm)

DISTRICT ATTORNEY

The district attorney is the officer responsible for conducting all criminal prosecutions in the county and is its chief law enforcement officer, This individual signs all bills of indictment and is the State prosecutor. In some counties, the district attorney is also involved in consumer protection activities.

The forerunner of the district attorney was the deputy attorney general who was appointed in each county by the State Attorney General. An 1850 act provided for an elected district attorney in each county who served a three year term. This officer signed all indictments, conducted criminal prosecutions in the name of the Commonwealth, and performed all the duties which had been the responsibility of the deputy attorney general. The three year term was retained in the 1873 Constitution, but a 1909 amendment increased the term of office to four years. In the six home rule counties, the district attorneys are elected officials and have essentially the same duties as the district attorneys in the other counties.

The district attorney serves as the chief law enforcement officer in each county and has the authority to preserve the peace and suppress crime when the local authorities cannot do so, This officer may appoint assistants and county detectives to help with investigations and prosecutions, In some counties, the district attorney may oversee the consumer protection program, direct a crime laboratory, or serve on the board of inspectors of the county prison. In the past, the district attorney participated in investigations relating to dance hall and beer licenses, and also dealt with cases of election fraud.

The district attorney is the custodian of various dockets and papers relating to criminal prosecutions. These may include various kinds of criminal case papers relating to adults and juveniles, fingerprint files, bail records, detectives' reports, photographs, hearing and trial lists, complaints and warrants, court orders, and statistical reports.


Return to: RG-47 County Government (Originals) | RG-47 County Government (Microfilm)

SHERIFF

The sheriff as the chief peace officer of the county is responsible for carrying out the orders of the court of common pleas and maintaining order. Duties include serving processes, writs and other court documents; making arrests; delivering and executing court orders; helping with juries; taking prisoners to jail; and conducting sales in execution proceedings. The sheriff also issues firearms permits, provides security for the court house and, in some counties, serves as warden of the jail.

The office originated in the "shire keeper" and was brought to Pennsylvania by the English and Dutch. Chosen annually by the governor from three names submitted by the justices under the Duke of York's laws, the sheriff was the most important officer of the riding which was composed of towns and parishes. Under the Frames of Government of 1682 and 1683, the freemen of each county annually nominated two individuals, and the governor appointed one to serve as the sheriff. The Charter of Privileges of 1701 increased the term to three years, but a 1706 law provided for annual appointment again.

The Constitution of 1776 continued the nomination procedure, but the President-in-Council appointed the sheriffs annually, The 1790 Constitution provided for appointment by the governor every three years, and it was not until 1838 that the office became elective with the adoption of the new constitution. The three year term continued until 1909 when a constitutional amendment increased it to four years. In the six home rule counties, the sheriffs are either elected or appointed and have essentially the same duties as the sheriffs in the other counties.

Although the sheriff now shares some of the original responsibilities with others, this officer still performs many essential functions for county government. As the executive officer for the court of common pleas, the sheriff has always been involved in jury selection, serving summons and other judicial documents, handling prisoners, and carrying out court orders when necessary. At one time, the sheriff had complete charge of the county prison and may still serve as warden in the less populous counties. In the larger counties, this officer is a member of the board of inspectors of the county prison along with the president judge, commissioners, controller and district attorney, Before the office of jury commissioner was created in 1867, the sheriff was responsible for selecting jurors, a function shared with the commissioners after 1805. However, this officer still participates in the jury selection procedures and helps impanel jurors. Before the creation of the county board of elections, the sheriff was involved in appointing clerks, had custody of the ballot boxes and handled administrative details such as receiving lists of candidates, giving notices of elections, and certifying the winners.

Records maintained by the sheriff usually include dockets; real estate sale records; juror cards and lists; applications and licenses for selling, purchasing and carrying firearms; complaint and investigation files; as well as arrest and prison records.


Return to: RG-47 County Government (Originals) | RG-47 County Government (Microfilm)

JURY COMMISSIONERS

The two jury commissioners are the officers responsible for maintaining the records relating to juror selection for the court of common pleas. Along with the president judge of the judicial district, they constitute the jury selection commission.

Prior to 1867 when the office was created, the sheriff had supervised the selection of jurors. An 1805 law provided that the sheriff share this responsibility with the county commissioners. The 1867 act which established the office of jury commissioner required the electors in each county to vote for one person, and the two individuals receiving the highest" number of votes were elected. It provided for a three year term which was also stipulated in the 1873 Constitution. A 1909 amendment increased the term to four years.

The jury selection commission annually prepares a master list of prospective jurors usually compiled from voter registration records. Names are selected randomly from the master list, and the commission sends out juror qualification forms to those chosen. When the forms are returned, the president judge and the jury commissioners review them and create a list of qualified jurors who are then summoned for possible jury duty. In some counties, the court administrators help with a number of the routine details relating to jury selection. In the six home rule counties, jury selection is the responsibility of appointed jury commissioners, the county judiciary or the sheriff.

The jury commissioners are the custodians of various records relating to the selection process, These may include master lists, jury questionnaires, minutes, court orders, attendance and service records, and statistical reports.


Return to: RG-47 County Government (Originals) | RG-47 County Government (Microfilm)

BOARD OF COUNTY COMMISSIONERS

The board of county commissioners constitutes the most important administrative body in county government. In addition to their duties related to administration, the commissioners are also fiscal managers and have certain policy-making powers. Their myriad responsibilities make them the most powerful officers in the county.

When the office was originally created by statute in 1711, the commissioners were initially charged with taking over some of the taxation functions from the county courts, Each of the three original Pennsylvania counties of Bucks, Chester and Philadelphia had three commissioners who were appointed by the Assembly to serve until the next session. Before 1722, appointed commissioners were provided for by statute with the number varying between three and five. In 1722 and 1725, statutes were passed which made the office permanent and provided for three commissioners in each county who served three year terms. The county commissioners were mentioned in the 1776 Constitution, but it was not until the adoption of the 1873 Constitution that the office achieved full constitutional status, An amendment of 1909 increased their terms of office from three to four years. The three commissioners now serve simultaneous terms with minority representation guaranteed.

Currently, six of the sixty-seven counties in Pennsylvania have home rule charters which provide for elected councils/commissioners, elected or appointed county executives, and an elected mayor in the case of Philadelphia City/County. The number of council members/commissioners under these charters varies from three to seventeen. These officers perform essentially the same functions as the board of county commissioners in the other counties and, in some areas such as appointing certain officers, have more power than the typical three member board.

Although some functions may vary depending upon the county's classification, the commissioners represent the chief governing unit of the county. Its corporate power is vested in them - they may sue and be sued, hold title to county real estate, and award contracts, Many of the powers of the commissioners are related to their original function - the levying and collection of taxes, They are responsible through departments and boards for the registration and assessment of real property, preparing the tax rolls, keeping accounts, hearing appeals from dissatisfied citizens, and dealing with tax delinquencies.

Originating in their taxation powers, voter registration and elections are now handled by the commissioners, Since 1937, they comprise the Registration Commission and the County Board of Elections. As such, they administer the registration of voters, provide election supplies and voting places, and supervise the official vote count, The County Board then certifies the election returns to the Secretary of the Commonwealth.

The commissioners as the county's fiscal managers are responsible for adopting county budgets; appropriating monies; borrowing funds for capital construction projects; purchasing land for public buildings and projects; and providing for the upkeep of county facilities, roads and bridges as well as for the salaries of county officers and supplies. They also help administer the State's liquid fuel tax funds which are dispensed to municipalities.

Early on in the development of the office, the commissioners had certain responsibilities for the poor of the county. They now oversee the operations of the human service agencies which develop and administer programs relating to the elderly, children and youth, drug and alcohol addiction, emergency management, mental health, and care of the indigent in county homes.

Although some of their administrative functions are shared with other county officers, the commissioners appoint employees of most of the departments, commissions, boards and agencies which they supervise. They appoint the chief clerk, county solicitor, public defender, sealer of weights and measures and other county personnel. These might include employees in the following departments: arts and travel development, aviation, budget, consumer affairs, county prison, data processing, economic development elections engineering and public works, juvenile detention center, library, maintenance, parks and recreation, personnel, planning and zoning, public health, public relations purchasing, redevelopment authority, tax assessment, tax claim, veterans' affairs, and voter registration.

With all these responsibilities, the commissioners are custodians of numerous records relating to their administrative, legal and fiscal functions. Among the most important are the minutes of their meetings, resolutions and ordinances, deeds to county property, budgets, property record cards, tax claim sale records, tax assessment books, and election returns.


Return to: RG-47 County Government (Originals) | RG-47 County Government (Microfilm)

TREASURER

The treasurer is the officer responsible for receiving and disbursing all county monies on order of the county commissioners. Acting as the agent of the State, the treasurer is also involved in issuing certain kinds of licenses and collecting fees. In some counties this officer is involved in tax collection and may serve as director of the tax claim bureau, the department which handles tax delinquencies and sales.

The 1682 Frame of Government required the Provincial Council to nominate two persons for the office of county treasurer with the governor selecting one of them, When an act of 1696 provided for the election of assessors in each county, they were authorized to appoint the treasurer. The office of county commissioners was created in 1711, and from then until 1780 when the office of county assessor was abolished, both the commissioners and the assessors selected the treasurer, From 1780 until 1841, the commissioners had the sole authority to appoint the treasurer but in the latter year the office became an elective one. Initially, the treasurer had no fixed term, but in 1841 it was set at two years. The Constitution of 1873 provided for a three year term which was increased to the present four years by a 1909 constitutional amendment. In the six home rule counties, the treasurers or fiscal affairs officers are either elected or appointed and have essentially the same duties as treasurers in the other counties.

The treasurer is the custodian of the records relating to the office's primary function of receiving and disbursing all county monies. This officer maintains various types of accounts, journals and ledgers; receipts and canceled checks; bank statements and reconciliations; and reports to other county officials. Some records relate to tax collection and delinquencies since the treasurer at one time handled tax sales and may now serve as tax claim bureau director. Other records are the result of the treasurer's role as an agent of the Commonwealth for the sale of boat, dog, fishing, hunting and kennel licenses as well as pistol permits.


Return to: RG-47 County Government (Originals) | RG-47 County Government (Microfilm)

RECORDER OF DEEDS

The recorder of deeds is the officer responsible for maintaining the records relating to the transfer of real property in the county. This officer also records oaths and commissions of county officials, district justices and notaries and is the custodian of other miscellaneous documents.

The 1682 Frame of Government provided for an officer known as the master of the rolls who was selected annually by the governor from two names submitted by the Provincial Council. This individual served the whole province, and all land conveyances had to be recorded in his office. Besides recording deeds, mortgages and related papers, he also recorded the provincial laws. A 1683 law required that all deeds, mortgages, settlements and conveyances had to be acknowledged in open court.

In 1706 an act was passed for the acknowledgment and recording of deeds which required that every deed or conveyance and satisfaction had to be acknowledged by two witnesses before a justice of the peace with the recorder or enroller of deeds or his deputy being present. These documents then had to be recorded in the city or county where the land was located. Each county was to have an enrollment office, but there was no explanation how the selection of the recorder was made, This same law provided for the continuation of the master of the rolls for the whole province who maintained his office in Philadelphia and the other counties either personally or through his deputies. It appears that he was responsible for recording original deeds and patents while the local recorders handled deeds to land which had been previously granted. In 1809, the office of master of the rolls was abolished, and his records were turned over to the Land Office and the Secretary of the Commonwealth.

In 1711 and 1715, laws similar to that of 1706 were passed which determined the selection procedure for the recorders in each county. initially, the prothonotary or county clerk was ordered to act as recorder of deeds except in Philadelphia where the Assembly appointed a specific individual. The recorders in the other counties held office until the justices of the court of quarter sessions removed them and named replacements.

The 1776 Constitution made the recorder an appointee of the General Assembly, but the Constitution of 1790 gave that power to the governor. It was not until the Constitution of 1838 that the office became elective with the individual serving a three year term, The 1873 Constitution continued that practice, but a 1909 amendment increased the term to four years.

In the Constitution of 1776, the office of register of wills was created in each county and city. A law passed the following year required that one person serve as both recorder and register. According to the Constitution of 1838, the legislature was authorized to provide for the number of persons in each county who could hold the recording offices. An 1839 law formalized the division of the offices, and the county codes now provide for how the offices shall be filled depending upon the classification of the county. In the six home rule counties, the recorders of deeds are either elected or appointed. Although they may be called the clerk of records or director of court services and their responsibilities may include other recording functions, these officers or their deputies have essentially the same duties in regard to keeping real property records as the recorders in the other counties.

The recorder of deeds is the custodian of the records and indexes relating to the conveyance of land or the transfer of real property in the county. These include deed books and indexes, mortgage books and indexes, subdivision plans and various kinds of maps. This officer also records the commissions and oaths of county officials, district justices and notaries as well as maintaining copies of military discharges and numerous miscellaneous documents.


Return to: RG-47 County Government (Originals) | RG-47 County Government (Microfilm)

AUDITORS/CONTROLLER

The three auditors are the officers responsible for auditing, adjusting and settling the accounts of county officials in sixth through eighth class counties. The controller is the chief financial officer in the larger counties and has myriad responsibilities involving fiscal management and accountability.

The origins of these two offices can be traced back to an act of 1700 relating to raising county levies. It was the first law to require auditing of county officers' accounts and stipulated that the justices of each county court and the assessors were responsible for auditing the treasurer's accounts each year. Another tax law in 1718 required the county commissioners rather than the justices to perform the audit along with the assessors. This practice continued until 1732 when another law provided that the commissioners, assessors and treasurer in each county had to show the justices and grand jury all books of entries and accounts, receipts, and vouchers. The county courts continued their role in financial management by the terms of a 1791 act which authorized the court of common pleas to appoint three auditors to audit, settle and adjust the public accounts of the treasurer and county commissioners.

The office became elective in 1809, and the auditors served one year terms. An 1810 act authorized them to examine the accounts of not only the commissioners and treasurer but also the sheriff and coroner. Although their term of office was increased to three years in 1814, it was not until the Constitution of 1873 that the auditors were designated as county officers. That document also guaranteed minority representation by requiring each elector to vote for only two individuals. A 1909 amendment increased the term to four years.

The office of controller was first established in Philadelphia and Allegheny counties to replace the auditors in 1854 and 1861 respectively. They continued the auditing functions but also had additional duties involving fiscal management. Acts of 1893 and 1895 obligated counties with populations exceeding 150,000 inhabitants to elect controllers instead of auditors. In 1909, a law permitted electors in less populous counties to petition the court of common pleas to establish the office of controller, and in 1913, counties with more than 100,000 population were required to create the office. Prior to a 1909 constitutional amendment which set the term of office at four years, controllers had served two or three year terms. In 1955, a law authorized voters in the less populous counties to decide if they wanted to establish the office. In the six home rule counties, the controllers are elected and have essentially the same duties as the controllers in the other counties.

The chief responsibility of the three auditors is to audit, adjust and settle the accounts of county officers each year and to submit a report on their findings to the court of common pleas. They also submit annual audit and financial reports to the State's Department of Community Affairs. In contrast, the controller has numerous responsibilities as the chief financial officer of the county. Like the auditors, the controller audits, adjusts and settles the accounts of all county officers and submits reports to the court of common pleas and the State's Department of Community Affairs. However, the controller continuously supervises the fiscal operations of the county. This officer prepares a proposed budget for the county commissioners, countersigns all warrants drawn on the treasurer, examines all claims and bills against the county, and prepares vouchers. The controller's office has the authority to establish accounting systems and also serves on various boards with the county commissioners such as those relating to salaries and retirement.

Records maintained by the auditors may include minutes, reports and audit workpapers. The controller is the custodian of numerous records relating to audits and financial management including audit reports and papers, bids and contracts, plans and specifications, some officials' bonds, county notes and bonds, deeds and titles to county property, budget papers, account books, reports and other fiscal records.


Return to: RG-47 County Government (Originals) | RG-47 County Government (Microfilm)

CLERK OF COURTS

The clerk of courts is the officer responsible for maintaining the records of the criminal division of the court of common pleas in each judicial district. This individual is also the custodian of certain records relating to civil matters such as the creation of townships which have historically been within the jurisdiction of this division.

The office is one of the oldest in the Commonwealth and is mentioned in the Duke of York's Book of Laws, under which the area known as Pennsylvania was governed from 1664-1681, as the "Clerk of the Court of Sessions." Initially, this officer had a number of responsibilities which included recording bond servants; entering actions for trial, depositions, petitions, and court orders; granting tavern licenses; ordering that jurors be summoned and certifying the time they served; recording judgments, executions and attachments, deeds and surveys; and entering wills or administrations. When William Penn became proprietor and the 1682 Frame of Government made provision for the erection of county courts, the clerk's duties evolved to resemble more closely those of the modern day clerk of courts.

Before 1707, the single county court in each of the three original Pennsylvania counties of Bucks, Chester and Philadelphia was responsible for most local governmental functions. These courts had jurisdiction over civil, criminal and equity cases and also dealt with the settlement of estates and the care of orphans. The courts also had a number of administrative responsibilities such as levying taxes, managing finances, overseeing poor relief, constructing and maintaining roads and bridges, approving and issuing tavern and peddler licenses, and establishing township boundaries.

In 1707, Governor John Evans' ordinance established two separate courts in each county - quarter sessions and oyer and terminer to hear criminal cases and deal with administrative matters and common pleas to hear civil and equity cases. Referred to as clerk of the peace or clerk of the courts, the individual was responsible for keeping the records of the court of quarter sessions of the peace as well as for the court of oyer and terminer, The quarter sessions court handled routine criminal cases while oyer and terminer (to hear and determine) was commissioned to hear cases involving homicides and other serious offenses. The clerk had custody of the records and seal of the court and also had duties relating to the civil matters vested in the quarter sessions court, Numerous laws were passed during the provincial period and in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries which continued this basic judicial structure on the county level with occasional jurisdictional changes.

Under the Constitution of 1968, the judiciary of the State was reorganized under a Unified Judicial System with the Supreme Court overseeing its operations. In each judicial district in this system, the county courts were combined into a single common pleas court. This court exercises the jurisdiction that was vested in the previous courts of common pleas, quarter sessions of the peace and oyer and terminer, and orphans' court. These now constitute divisions of each court of common pleas - civil, criminal and orphans' court.

Before the 1701 Charter of Privileges there was no clear indication how the clerk of each county court was chosen or his length of service.. That document provided that each county's justices nominate three people, one of whom would be selected by the governor to be "clerk of the peace". The 1790 Constitution vested that power in the governor alone. It was not until the Constitution of 1838 that the office became elective with the individual serving a three year term. The Constitution of 1873 continued that practice, but a 1909 amendment increased the term to four years.

According to the 1838 Constitution, the legislature was to provide for the number of persons in each county who could hold the various recording offices. A law of 1839 formalized the division of the offices, and the county codes now provide for how the offices shall be filled depending upon the classification of the county, In the six home rule counties, the clerks of courts are either elected or appointed. Although they may be called the clerk of records or director of court services and their responsibilities may include other recording functions, these officers or their deputies have essentially the same duties in regard to the criminal division as clerks in the other counties.

The clerk of courts is the custodian of the papers, dockets and indexes of the criminal division. This officer is responsible for collecting fines and costs as will as accepting bail bonds. Records maintained by the clerk include appointments; bonds and oaths of office; records relating to municipalities such as annexation proceedings for cities, boroughs and townships; road and bridge dockets and papers; financial reports filed by municipalities; tax collectors' reports; criminal dockets, indexes, files and summary appeals; juvenile records; and grand jury reports. Other miscellaneous records may be kept without specific statutory requirements and may result from local rules of court in a specific county.


Return to: RG-47 County Government (Originals) | RG-47 County Government (Microfilm)

Board of Elections and Voter Registration

Prior to 1937 the conduct of elections was managed in part by the commissioners, the sheriff, and the courts. The commissioners supplied expenses and ballots, the sheriff gave notice of elections, and the courts created election districts and were the officers receiving the returns. In that year a law was passed that created a Board of Elections to manage all elements of the elections except voter registration which was placed under the recently created Registration Commissions. Up to that time most registrations had been maintained by the assessors. By majority vote the Board set the standards for the conduct of both primary and general elections.

The Registration Commissions combined different methods that had previously been used to develop voters' lists and removed the role of the assessors, something that had been in existence since the colonial era when property qualifications determined eligibility to be an elector. Since the creation of the Registration Commissions many counties have joined the Board and Commission to centralize all elements of managing elections and voter lists. Current practice is for the Board to furnish all material used at elections, including the purchse and maintenance of voting machines and conduct of absentee voting. Guidelines for the conduct of elections are promulgated by the Board who also receives petitions for candidate placement on primary ballots.

The Board registers new voters and maintains voter registration files, which includes name, address and political party. Finally, the Board receives the returns of all primaries and elections from each precinct and certifies results


Return to: RG-47 County Government (Originals) | RG-47 County Government (Microfilm)

Almshouse and County Home


After the adoption of the Constitution of 1790 care of the poor was shifted to counties. Special acts provided for the election of directors for each "poor" district. The directors, with financial support from the commissioners, set up and maintained almshouses. Over time the rules for such county maintained facilities changed such that, for example, children and persons requiring special support were placed in facilities designed for their own use. Later, other forms of assistance were employed such as outdoor relief, foster care for children, and group homes for special needs persons. Many counties no longer maintain such facilities but contract out for such services.


Return to: RG-47 County Government (Originals) | RG-47 County Government (Microfilm)

Tax Assessment Office

Tax assessors were established to assist the Board of Commissioners in establishing rates. Abolished in the early years of the republic, assessors were brought back as elected officials to conduct the setting of rates. Commissioners issue precepts for valuation and the assessors compile the information to complete the tax rolls.


Return to: RG-47 County Government (Originals) | RG-47 County Government (Microfilm)

Clerk of Judicial Records

A term often used by home rule counties when the functions of prothonotary and clerk of courts are combined.

PA State Archives Hours, Directions, & Fees Research Topics Finding Aids for Collections Land Records