Why Do We Elect A Sheriff?

Today, voters across Harrisonburg and Rockingham County, Virginia will have the opportunity to select a Republican candidate for sheriff.  The choice is between Kurt Boshart and Bryan Hutcheson.  The winner of this contest will go on to face Independent candidate C.M. Hess in the general election.

When speaking with various voters in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County, I’ve been stumped by one question.  Let me back up for a second.  From reading this blog, you’ll quickly discover that I try to know just about everything I can about politics.  Therefore, when I don’t have the answer to an inquiry, I research until I find it.  However, I cannot figure out why the voters select the sheriff.

Isn’t the sheriff primarily responsible as the chief law enforcement agent in the city or county?  If that assumption is true, wouldn’t the best sheriff be the person who most efficiently and effectively promotes the laws of a particular locality?  Shouldn’t experience be more important than popularity?  Why, therefore, is the sheriff position subjected to the political process?

Although I know some states have popularly elected judges, I find the idea distasteful.  The creation of the law is a highly partisan process, but shouldn’t the application of the law be uniform?  Isn’t one of the primary purposes of both judges and sheriffs to maintain the law?  If a Republican, Democrat, or Independent chose not to uphold the law of the land, we ought to be outraged.  Need I remind you that legislators alone have the ability to craft laws and not judicial figures?

Now, maybe I just don’t really understand the position of sheriff all that well.  Does he (or she) have some sort of political role to play too?  Is that the reason why parties nominate candidates and voters go to the polls to pick their sheriff?

I could go on here, but I’m hoping a reader can offer comments that will enlighten both my fellow citizens and myself regarding this matter.  Even if you don’t have any firm knowledge, educated guesses are always welcome.

Don’t take me for a fool for asking, but why do we elect a sheriff?

7 Replies to “Why Do We Elect A Sheriff?”

  1. Only you would inspire me to go off on a frenzied hunt for the 1902 Constitution of Virginia (though I probably would have gotten around to doing it anyways).

    I have a feeling that your answer is not to be a civics lesson but rather a history lesson, as many times these things are shaped by the political considerations of the day (such as how prior to 1902 Virginia had far more statewide elected offices). Alas, the 1902 edition is not coming readily to me–once I find it, though, I’ll let you know my thoughts–which I have a feeling have something to do with Virginia’s former Justice of the Peace system.

    I have, though, found out that Virginia’s sheriff’s were the first in the New World. Small wonder, but neat nevertheless (though to add fuel to your argument, they were appointed).

  2. Here is a link to the 1902 Constitution of Virginia: http://confinder.richmond.edu/admin/docs/Virginia_1902.pdf

    The Constitution Finder website is a great resource: http://confinder.richmond.edu/

    As to your question, I believe that a sheriff is simply an official with responsibility for a region or county. That a sheriff is primarily a law enforcement official is due to our state’s particular retention of duties for the position–in other countries a sheriff may have legal and political duties that are outside of law enforcement. In fact, sheriffs in Scotland are judges and in Ireland, Australia, and Canada, they are mostly administrative in function. As a British invention, sheriffs are localized to former colonies, territories, and what-have-you of the British Empire, spreading from India to the Philippines to the Americas. The word, sheriff, is derived from Old English scirgerefa, or representative of royal authority in a shire (scir [shire] + gerefa [reeve, or commonly, official]).

    “Conservators of the Peace” first appear under early Saxon law, and were first designated by Saxon kings to keep the peace in their particular region. Evidently, in AD 920, King Edward officially coined the term scirgerefa, although the Norman invasion of England temporarily disrupted the tradition. I do not know when the position of sheriff shifted from appointment to election, but I would assume that it was a natural ramification of the philosophical derivations of the Enlightenment. Sorry if this is a bit garbled, but I just took a break from comps studying and am still mentally fatigued.

    1. Huh. I was at the very site earlier and could not find that document. Oh well. Thank you, Austin, for not only adding to my points in regards to how the conception of sheriff has greatly changed throughout the time from its initial conception in the middle ages to our current American republic, but also helping me to clarify for my own interests a point I touched upon regarding the statewide offices VA used to elect. After consulting the Constitution and Ronald Hinneman’s Harry Byrd of Virginia I realized that the eight offices laid out in the 1902 document were abolished in 1928.

      At any rate, this all points in one direction: all past is prologue.

  3. This article, circa 1981 from the Cooper Center at UVA, contains the very best explanation I could find regarding how the Sheriff (and associated officers) came to be. Note that its a little dated (it says that many localities that could abolish these offices haven’t–quite a few of the more urban localities now have), but the historical content rings true.


    To summarize: It starts with the very first office of the Sheriff and its Old World equivalents. Note that back then the office had very different duties, namelty tax collection and electoral administration. These were stripped throughout various legislative and constituional changes.

    1. Sorry, my last comment posted before I was finished. But the long and short of it is that the 1851 Constituion, in which the “constitutional officers” became elected, was largely influenced by the Jacksonian current of the day (as well as lingering resentments between the Western and Eastern portions of the state). As the office had far more fiscal duties back then, it appeared to make sense to those who believed that person with such power needed to be elected that the sheriff should be too.

      Does this make sense under the current definition of the office? I’m not sure that it does. An argument could be made that since the Sheriff has duties that go beyond law enforcement and more into the judicial realm (namely, the administration of the courts, jails and service of process) that oversight by the citizens is needed, but again, that’s for one to decide based upon how you see such “bueracratic”/”administrative” functions best handled.

  4. Thanks to you both for your comments and sorry for taking so long to reply. You’ve helped inform me and the readers on this topic.

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