Cherokee Judicial Circuit Chief Superior Court Judge Shepherd Howell said an appeal for higher compensation must go through the legislative process. Currently, each superior court judge’s salary, which comes in at “$120,000 and some change,” is set by the state. The supplement, also determined by the Georgia General Assembly, however, is paid for by each circuit’s county.
“Now, there’s 49 circuits in the state, 48 of those circuits pay a supplement. It’s paid by the county. It is a county expense, but the amount of the supplement is set by the legislator and ultimately approved by the governor,” Howell explained. “Supplements vary widely. ... I would say that one purpose of the supplement is to keep a judge’s salary kind of commiserate with what lawyers may be making in the area because you want the judge’s position to be financially rewarding enough to attract good lawyers. And the income varies greatly among circuits.”
In the request to legislators, Howell said the current supplement for the four Cherokee circuit judges is $20,000, which is shared by the circuit’s two counties — Bartow and Gordon. Under the current breakdown, Bartow pays 63 percent of the $20,000 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 letter.
At this time, Bartow pays $50,400 for the four judges’ supplements — 63 percent of the total $80,000 cost. Under the proposed increase, Bartow County would 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.
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 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. In addition to Howell and Smith, the circuit includes judges Carey Nelson and David Smith.
Although Howell said in the letter he realized “this is not the best of times to be seeking a salary increase,” the circuit has fallen below the state average.
“I went to Commissioner Brown in 2007, told him I wanted an increase, but of course, you know, the crash, economic crash, the tax revenue and everything got real bad and he said, ‘I just can’t do it. I’m furloughing people.’ I said, ‘Well, I understand. I won’t ask you,’” Howell said of the delay in an increase. “The situation now is still not ideal, I’m not going to say it is, but I felt like I’m falling so far behind the average, not I but, you know, the judges here, the four of us, that I just felt it was appropriate to go ahead and make a request for the increase at this time. But the reason it’s been such a long delay is the economic crisis.”
Citing increases since the economic downturn in “the Douglas, Chattahoochee, Macon and Tifton Circuits,” Howell said the $32,300 requested would place the circuit at a median point.
The four superior court judges met to discuss the increase request prior to its submittal to legislators.
“We bantered a little bit about how much to ask for and came up with the $32,300, which would put us at basically half the judges in Georgia make more and half the judges making less. We felt like we should surely be entitled to that,” Howell said.
In the letter, Howell said the average supplement paid per judge in the state is $34,767.29.
And, according to Howell, the Gordon County Board of Commissioners and Bartow County Commissioner Steve Taylor are not opposed to the raise.
“I met with Gordon County commissioners back in December and they actually have endorsed it. They’ve written a letter saying we support it,” he said. “Commissioner Taylor has indicated he doesn’t have any opposition to it. There may be still be some furloughing happening in Bartow County; there is not in Gordon County. ... But I think the economic situation in Bartow is not quite as good as in Gordon for a variety of reasons, but he did indicate to me he would have no opposition to it.”
Taylor said Monday while he did not oppose the measure, he could not support the increase.
“If the state representatives approve it and they deem it necessary for the judges to have a raise, then I’m not going to oppose it,” he said. “But I cannot support a raise just because — even though I agree that those guys need a raise — I can’t support a raise because county employees are not getting a raise at this time, and I just don’t feel like it would be fair to support a raise for the judges and not the county employees.”
As for the additional $32,934, Taylor said those funds would come from within the superior court’s Bartow County budget.
“Gordon County is supporting the raise, I’m not supporting the raise,” he said. “Their budget is obviously not as tight as ours — we’re on a tight budget.”
According to a 2011 analysis by the Administrative Office of the Courts, the Cherokee Judicial Circuit ranks eighth in the state for workload and total cases per judge, with four judges and a 4.53 judge workload value.
“The workload value is basically based on the number of cases that you have filed each year. Of course there are different categorizes of cases — there are felony criminal, misdemeanor criminal, civil litigation, domestic relations, also on the criminal side there are probation revocations,” Howell said. “... 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 2,631 cases, according to the analysis, which showed a 13.7 percent decrease from 2007 to 2011.
“The number of cases has gone down. I’m surprised to see 13 percent,” Howell said. “We saw a reduction in cases being filed kind of in conjunction, there again, in the economic crash. ... You may see an increase in the caseload with magistrate court because the filing fees are cheaper there. And our filing fees increased ... I’m thinking maybe two years ago the filing fees just about doubled [from $100 to $200].”
From here, the supplement increase would be introduced to the Legislature and proceed as any other measure. Howell said he had been in communication with the senior delegate from the area, John Meadows, R-Calhoun, concerning the matter.
“He thinks its going to go through OK. I think he’s going to let Paul Battles present it. I have not talked to Paul Battles but I intend to,” the judge said.
Battles did not return calls Monday by press time.