As the legislature slashed state agency budgets by 10% and local governments scramble to balance budgets for the upcoming fiscal year, Superior Court Judges in one judicial circuit will get a pay raise due to an intentional technicality.
The Superior Court judges who serve the Atlantic Judicial Circuit encompassing Bryan, Evans, Liberty, Long, McIntosh, and Tattnall counties requested a local salary increase back in late February and early March. The move was said to be at the recommendation of the Office of Administrative Courts and the Council of Superior Court Judges. The judges in the circuit asked that the Commissioners pen a letter of support to state lawmakers, expressing that the county has no objection to the pay local legislation or the salary supplement increase. The legislature would approve a ‘local bill’ for the Atlantic Judicial Circuit and the respective counties would pay out based on the agreement as defined in the binding legislation.
Supplemental appropriations are paid by county governments from general fund monies in addition to the minimum salary schedule set by the state legislature. Commissioners have the authority to object to the local legislation and judges are currently paid $30,000 each on an annual basis on top of their $132,264 state salary.
According to OpenGeorgia.Gov, Atlantic Judicial Circuit judges were paid as follows in 2019:
- Judge Glen Cheney – $132,264.96 (+ $6,617.70 in travel reimbursements)
- Judge Robert Russell – $132,264.96 (+ 8,848.59 in travel reimbursements)
- Judge Charles P. Rose – $132,264.96 (+ $5,791.45 in travel reimbursements)
- Judge Jay Stewart – $132,264.96 (+6,455.36 in travel reimbursements)
The supplement increase for all six counties as requested by the judges totaled $1,575 per month per judge, or $6,300 per month across the judicial circuit. The increase would mean a $75,600 increase for the year for the Atlantic Judicial Circuit judges.
During county commission meetings in February and March, judges appeared before commissioners in each county and even professed that legislation had been filed and was already pending in the Georgia General Assembly. At one point, when pushback came from elected officials concerned about an already tight local budget, Judge Jay Stewart told the Evans County Commissioners that he only asked the county for a letter of support “as a courtesy and out of respect,” implying that the support of commissioners was not necessary for approval. [see video below] Though it is not a requirement, most state lawmakers will not file local legislation without consent or approval of local governments to avoid unnecessary rifts, but the judges’ assertions that the bill was already pending left county commissioners thinking they had no choice but to support the judicial request.
Commissioners in Bryan, Evans, Liberty, Long, McIntosh, and Tattnall counties consented to what they believed was already a done deal in March.
But as it turns out, no such legislation was approved by the legislature this year. House Bill 1164 seeking a pay raise was filed by Reps. Al Williams, Bill Werkheiser, and Jeff Jones on March 12 – after county commissioners offered their approval, not before – and did not garner a second reading until June 15. The measure failed to make it out of committee this year and did not attain final passage in the House or the Senate.
Perhaps most concerning, however, is that the judges stated the pay raise and the support for local legislation would ensure the local acts matched the state acts in terms of pay. With counties approving the supplement but the state failing to codify the bill, judges will now be paid more than what the state defines because county commissioners around the judicial circuit have appropriated the increases in their budgets – most of which are being advertised and approved now.
You can see HB 1164 did not receive a committee hearing here and can see the local calendars did not include legislation for the Atlantic Judicial Circuit.
Judicial salary discussion begins at the 6:35 mark. (More below video)
Initial salary request below.
Stewart’s letter was accompanied by draft legislation, meaning at least one of the Superior Court judges had already contacted a lawmaker about drafting legislation, notably before commissioners considered the pay increase.
The letter also compared the Atlantic Judicial Circuit to the Ogeechee, Brunswick, and Waycross Judicial Circuits and said the proposal would bring the Atlantic Judicial Circuit “closer in line with our sister circuits.” Those documents are below.