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Monday, March 30, 2015

Filling Public Offices

Tasks and duties of the clerk of court

The list of public offices up for election this fall is long and includes, among others, parish police juries, tax assessors, clerks of court, sheriffs and state lawmakers. Doubtless we’d like all of those elected to these positions to have some experience in the job they’ve been entrusted to perform by voters.

And for clerks of court that’s especially true. With clerk of court Cindy Johnston’s retirement announcement, a clerk’s race is already adding candidates in Bossier Parish. But before a candidate discussion, it seems more important to understand the broad function and work of the clerk’s office, because unlike some other elected positions, the clerk’s office is unique in that experience in the office really must be a prerequisite.

For the record, the clerk of court’s office isn’t a big filing-cabinet-lined facility in which legal documents are filed away for safekeeping. It is the repository for the parish’s legal documents and records, and in Bossier Parish, those records go all the way back to the parish’s founding in 1843. From civil and criminal filings and proceedings, to marriage licenses, to military discharge documents, to property transfers and mortgage certificates, and more – the clerk is responsible for maintaining and safeguarding all of these documents.

Duties include setting the court dockets, selecting jury pools and instructing those pools. A primary duty of the clerk is serving as the parish’s chief elections officer and conducting elections. That means a section dedicated entirely to ensuring that polling places are established, that there are sufficient elections commissioners to man these polling places and that those commissioners are fully trained. Commissioners aren’t employees of the clerk’s office.

Clearly, responsibilities of the clerk of court are significant, and the related liabilities are serious.

I made this point in my Bossier Press Tribune column and reiterate it here:

As a frequent user of the clerk’s office, my personal observation is that the day the next clerk is sworn-in will be either the time for the multitude of the office’s operations to move smoothly forward without interruption – or the time to slow down so that the offices’ employees can spend a couple of years training a new clerk in that multiplicity of duties, responsibilities and significant potential liabilities.

The complexities and experience required to learn the clerk’s job aren’t a short enough list to enumerate in this space, or several more like it. Moreover, reliance on subordinates (approximately three dozen deputy clerks in the Bossier Parish clerk of court’s office) to teach the myriad of responsibilities encompassed by the clerk of court’s position, while performing their duties, isn’t as realistic as it first may appear. These deputies are professional, cordial and exceedingly knowledgeable – and very busy as a rule.

The old adage that suggests changes are best made from inside a system also suggests that the “changer” be well-versed in the system. That may account for the high prevalence of clerk’s of court who attain their elected positions by coming up through the ranks, rather than from outside the system.

From this viewpoint, voters may want to consider the experience factor in choosing new clerk’s of court in any contested clerk’s races locally.

Marty Carlson, a freelance writer, has been covering local news for the past 17 years. She can be reached via email at martycarlson1218@ gmail.com.

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