By: Kelby Ouchley
Unique in the United States, police juries are elected political bodies that govern most parishes in the state of Louisiana. Police juries comprise the legislative and executive branches of parish governments. Not all parishes are governed by police juries, as twenty-three of the state’s sixty-four parishes have home rule charters that allow other forms of administration, including council-president, council-manager, and consolidated parish/city. Modern police juries have broad authority to enact and enforce ordinances and regulations, maintain public works, and levy taxes. However, the origin of police juries has a dark side, as regulating slavery was one of the initial purposes of their establishment.
Police juries predate Louisiana statehood in 1812. The present state of Louisiana was called the Orleans Territory at the time of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Soon afterwards, the Orleans Territory was divided into twelve counties that roughly coincided with the existing parishes that had been delineated by the Catholic Church during the French colonial period and the Spanish colonial period. These counties were further divided into nineteen parishes by the territorial legislature in 1807. As the population of the state increased, the nineteen parishes continued to be divided, which resulted in the sixty-four parishes of today.
The original law that established police juries was passed at the Second Session of the Third Legislature of the Territory of Orleans 1811. The act reads in part, “Be it enacted, by the Legislative Council and House of Representative of the Territory of Orleans, in General Assembly convened, That the Parish Juries summoned in the manner and form hereafter prescribed be and that the same are hereby authorized to establish, each in their respective parishes, if they deem it necessary for the police of said parish, a gendarmerie whose duty it shall be specially to go after runaway negroes and to maintain good order among the slaves. . . . And be it further enacted, That the parish juries who shall think proper to establish bodies of gendarmerie in their respective parishes, shall have power to lay on the slaves of their said parishes a tax for the keeping of said gendarmerie. And be it further enacted, That the parish meeting, or police jury . . . shall be composed for the future of a jury of twelve inhabitants presided by the parish judge, or in his absence by one of the members of the jury, elected by ballots.” Various amendments were added after statehood, including dividing parishes into wards from which police jurors would be elected. Others removed the requirement of twelve jurors per parish and permitted each parish to determine the number of jurors needed based on population. The presiding parish judge was also replaced by a police jury president elected from within the body of jurors. Parish elections for jurors are usually held in odd-numbered years using the open primary system.
In parishes where voters have replaced police juries with other forms of government in recent years, proponents of the switch have cited the efficiency of an administrative branch working separately from a legislative body, as opposed to the somewhat antiquated system of police jurors serving both the legislative and executive functions. Police juries still hold sway in the state’s rural regions, while parishes containing large municipalities or expanding suburban regions have tended to convert to other forms of government.
In general, police juries are restricted in their actions to those powers authorized by law or the state constitution. The constitution, though, grants broad authority to police juries if the actions are otherwise legal and approved by the parish voters. The Police Jury Association of Louisiana was established in 1924 to improve parish government through advocacy and education. The organization states that police juries “exercise over fifty different functions and powers, including road and bridge construction and maintenance, drainage, sewerage, solid waste disposal, fire protection, recreations and parks, parish prison construction and maintenance, road lighting and marking, many water works, health units and hospitals, etc. They also house and maintain the Courts and the offices of the Assessor, Coroner, Clerk of Court, Registrar of Voters, District Attorney and the Sheriff. They promote economic development and tourism in their parishes, regulate various business activities, and administer numerous state and federal programs on the parish level.” Police juries also have authority to enforce ordinances with fines through civil court processes.
Parishes using the police jury system: Acadia, Allen, Assumption, Avoyelles, Beauregard, Bienville, Bossier, Calcasieu, Caldwell, Cameron, Catahoula, Claiborne, Concordia, DeSoto, East Carroll, East Feliciana, Evangeline, Franklin, Grant, Jackson, Jefferson Davis, La Salle, Lincoln, Madison, Morehouse, Natchitoches, Ouachita, Pointe Coupee, Rapides, Red River, Richland, Sabine, St. Helena, Tensas, Union, Vermilion, Vernon, Webster, West Carroll, West Feliciana, Winn
Parishes using the council-president system: Ascension, Iberia, Iberville, Jefferson, Lafourche, Livingston, Plaquemines, St. Bernard, St. Charles, St. James, St. John the Baptist, St. Landry, St. Martin, St. Mary, St. Tammany, Tangipahoa, Washington, West Baton Rouge
Parishes using the consolidated parish/city system: Orleans Parish and New Orleans, East Baton Rouge Parish and Baton Rouge; Lafayette Parish and Lafayette; Terrebonne Parish and Houma
Parishes using council-manager system: Caddo
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Louisiana Police Jury Association. Police Jury Manual – A Compilation of the Laws Concerning the Authority and Responsibility of Parish Governing Authorities. Baton Rouge: Louisiana Police Jury Association, 1996.
The Encyclopedia of Louisiana. St. Clair Shores: Somerset Publishers, 1999.
Wall, Bennett H., John C. Rodrique, and L.T. Cummins, eds. Louisiana: A History. Hoboken:
This article is courtesy of 64 Parishes’ online encyclopedia of Louisiana history and culture.