History of the County Clerk

The County Clerk in the State of New Jersey is one of three county-wide elected Constitutional Officers along with the Sheriff and Surrogate. The term of the County Clerk is five years. The County Clerk is responsible for the administration of a broad range of services including the filing and recording of all documents affecting real estate ownership/transfer, the processing of U.S. Passport applications, assisting individuals who wish to become a Notary Public, the filing of Business Trade Names and the supervision of Primary, General, School Board and Special Elections.

Historically, the evolution of the position of County Clerk is tied to the recording of real estate documents.  In the Middle Ages, the only persons who could read or write were the clergy who were held in high regard by the kings and their courts. Since the transfer of property involved the creations of a record for transfer, it was the clergy or their appointment of other learned people who could read or write, called the “clericus” or “clerks,” who undertook a written record for land transfer.

So important were the “clericus” that they enjoyed the protection of the church and doctrine of “Benefit of Clergy” which prohibited the courts from gaining jurisdiction over these persons and gave them total privilege of exemption from punishment of crimes.

For 500 years, through the 16th century, the transfer of property occurred by documents written and held by the “clerks”. Since these “clerks” could read and write, they became “clerks of the courts” of the various lords in England maintaining records of the Court proceedings. With the colonization of the United States that procedure was adopted within the legal jurisdictions of the various lords and the attendant “clerks.”

Due to the distance between the “motherland” England and the “colonies,” America, inhabitants formed various agreements for the recording and transfer of property. The first occurred in 1676 entitled, “The West New Jersey.” Both the East and West Jersey Proprietors ceded and surrendered their respective rights back to the British crown in 1702 raising concern that no method existed for the transfer of property.

After the Revolutionary War, the State of New Jersey returned to the basic concept that recording was necessary to protect purchasers of property. Under the “Conveyance Act of 1799, which is the precursor of the existing NJ Statutes for recording”…every conveyance of property must be ‘recorded’ in a ‘register’ or it shall be ‘void and of no effect’. These laws further directed and required that recordations and registrations be performed by the various “clerks of the inferior courts of common pleas and quarter sessions” who were appointed by the council and assembly…and commissioned by the governor.

In 1844, a new Constitution was drawn for the state and the Clerks were removed from the control of the executive and judicial branches and had their powers conferred upon them by the voters of the State of New Jersey. They were Constitutional Officers and served for fixed terms. The NJ Constitution of 1844 provided that:

“Clerks and Surrogates of counties shall be elected by the people of their respective counties at the annual elections for members of the General Assembly. They shall hold their offices for five years.”

In 1947, a new State Constitution provided only minor changes including the directive that Clerks are elected at General Elections. The long historical role of the Clerks, as Constitutional Officers, performing what is now a statutory function in recording documents of title, establishes an area of expertise and unique function.

Union County, formed in 1857 from a dispute with Essex County, elected its first County Clerk Henry R. Cannon who served until 1877. There have been a total of 13 County Clerks including:

  • Henry R. Cannon (1857-1877)
  • James S. Vosseller (1878-1886)
  • John L. Crowell (1887-1892)
  • James J. Gerber (1892-1893)
  • William M. Oliver (1893-1894)
  • William Howard (1895-1904)
  • James C. Calvert (1905-1915)
  • Abram P. Morris (1916)
  • William B. Martin (1916-1931)
  • Neil McLeod Jr. (1931-1936)
  • Henry G. Nulton (1936-1965)
  • Walter G. Halpin (1966-1995)
  • Joanne Rajoppi (1995-current)