Legislature raises local judges’ per annum
by Jessica Loeding
Feb 07, 2014 | 846 views | 0 0 comments | 12 12 recommendations | email to a friend | print
A year after an appeal to local legislators, Cherokee Judicial Circuit superior court judges received a raise.

In January 2013, then Chief Superior Court Judge Shepherd Howell requested an increase in compensation for the four positions through the legislative process. Under House Bill 768, which was sent to Gov. Nathan Deal on Friday, the judges received a per annum increase of $12,300 each — from $20,000 to $32,300. The raise became “effective on February 1, 2014, upon its approval by the Governor, or upon its becoming law without such approval, whichever date is later,” according to the bill.

Each superior court judge’s salary, which totals more than $120,000, is set by the state. The additional $32,300 supplement, however, will be paid for by each circuit’s county.

A survey of Georgia judicial circuits showed the Cherokee Judicial Circuit, covering Bartow and Gordon counties, to be among the lower half in pay, regardless of caseload, Chief Superior Court Judge David Smith said Wednesday.

“This amount — $12,300 — is kind of an odd amount,” he said. “What that does is get us up to the 50th percentile.”

According to last year’s letter, Howell said the average supplement paid per judge in the state is $34,767.29.

The per annum supplement, totaling $129,200, will be divided between Bartow and Gordon counties on a per capita basis. Under the 2013 breakdown, Bartow paid 63 percent of the $80,000 total with Gordon picking up the remaining 37 percent.

“I would request an increase to $32,300 to be shared by Bartow and Gordon counties at the new rate of 64.5 percent paid by Bartow and 35.5 percent paid by Gordon, based on the 2010 Census,” Howell stated in the 2013 letter.

Previously, Bartow paid $50,400 for the four judges’ supplements — 63 percent of the total $80,000 cost. Now, Bartow County will be responsible for $83,334, an increase of $32,934.

In 2011, Bartow County budgeted $791,000 for superior court; that total went down slightly to $785,000 in 2012. According to the 2013 operating budget, the county allotted $749,000 for superior court — $68,000 less than the proposed 2014 budget of $817,000.

Bartow and Gordon counties share some expenses for the circuit, including court reporters and the supplement, and historically, those expense percentages have been tied to population. Howell said last year that the population change from the 2010 Census had not been reflected in the expenses and he felt the increase request would be an appropriate time to amend those figures.

Cherokee circuit judges last had a supplement increase in 2002 — prior to the addition of Judge Scott Smith, who began in 2006. Howell retired his position effective Feb. 1.

The governor on Wednesday interviewed three finalists to replace Howell — Suzanne Hutchinson, Gordon County attorney; Kelley Dial, Cherokee Judicial Circuit public defender; and Harry White, private attorney.

Smith said the governor, an attorney himself, traditionally has a decision within two weeks.

According to a 2012 analysis by the Administrative Office of the Courts, the Cherokee Judicial Circuit ranked sixth in the state for workload and total cases per judge, with four judges and a 4.73 judge workload value. Those numbers jumped from 2011’s report where the circuit was eighth in the state for workload at a 4.53 per judge workload value.

A caseload report by the agency showed a total of 9,819 dockets filed in the Cherokee Judicial Circuit in 2012. A disproportionate number of those were in Bartow — 7,128 locally compared to 2,691 in Gordon County.

“The workload value is basically based on the number of cases that you have filed each year. Of course there are different categories of cases — there are felony criminal, misdemeanor criminal, civil litigation, domestic relations, also on the criminal side there are probation revocations,” Howell said in January 2013. “... Those type cases are assigned a certain value — easiest way to demonstrate, a felony is worth more than a misdemeanor it generally just takes longer to handle a felony case than it does a misdemeanor case. ... In the end, after you’ve added all the cases together with their appropriate case value, you come up with a number and you divide it by the number of judges you have and that tells you theoretically how many judges you need to do the work that you have.”

Each judge in the Cherokee circuit handles 2,558 cases, according to the analysis, which showed a 7.4 percent decrease from 2008 to 2012.

“We’re busy here and we look forward to Gov. Deal appointing a new judge ...,” Smith said.

A second piece of legislation concerning the local court is pending in the Georgia General Assembly. House Bill 758 would change the terms of court for the Superior Court of Bartow County. Code Section 15-6-3 of the Official Code of Georgia Annotated lays out the terms as the first Monday in February and August, fourth Monday in April and third Monday in October. The proposed legislation revises those terms to the first Monday in February, May, August and November.