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State gives judges, district attorneys first raise in ten years

Ben Hillyer | The Natchez Democrat

NATCHEZ — Since January, some of Adams County’s top officials in the court system have been taking home a little extra.

Last year, the Mississippi state legislature passed a pay raise for the state’s judiciary, from the Supreme Court down to the county circuit and chancery judges, as well as full-time district attorneys and county judges. Assistant district attorneys can also receive a raise because the amount they can be paid is tied to how much the district attorney earns.

The pay raise did not affect justice court judges, whose salaries are tied to the population of the county they serve.

Prior to January, circuit and chancery judges were paid $104,170. District attorneys were paid $96,796.

After the New Year, circuit and chancery judges are paid $112,127.50. The pay raise will incrementally increase annually until 2016, at which point the judges will be paid $136,000.

Likewise, the raise now gives district attorneys $103,322, and by the time all of the annual increases are fully implemented, they will receive $125,900 yearly.

Adams County has two circuit judges, Forrest “Al” Johnson and Lillie Blackmon Sanders, and two chancery judges, Vincent Davis and George Ward. The district attorney is Ronnie Harper.

Judge’s salaries are set by the state in Mississippi, and the increase is being funded through two sources. Court filing fees were increased $40 to pay for the judges’ salaries, while $10 was added to the fees for certain crimes — including speeding and littering tickets — to pay for the district attorneys and their assistants.

The pay raise for the circuit and chancery judges also means that county judge John Hudson has seen a pay increase. In Adams County, the county judge’s rate of pay is set to be $4,000 less than the circuit and chancery judges’ pay, Hudson said.

Circuit court judges hear all civil and criminal matters that are specifically assigned to other courts. Chancery court judges hear cases concerning family matters — including divorce, custody, alimony and adoptions — and estates, land issues, emancipation of minors, insurance settlements and commitments of the mentally disabled.

Circuit judges hear cases in Adams, Amite, Franklin and Wilkinson counties. Chancery judges hear cases in Adams, Claiborne, Jefferson and Wilkinson counties.

County court is meant to take some of the workload off of the circuit and chancery courts, and in Adams County it hears matters of eminent domain, unlawful entry and detainer, partition of personal property and youth court matters. The county judge also hears felony cases.

While members of Adams County’s judiciary and court prosecution system said they weren’t actively involved in the request for higher salaries, the raise was long-needed. The last time the state approved a pay raise for judges was 2003; requests for more money between then and the 2012 session were denied.

“When (the judicial councils) were working to get these raises, they told us that the buying power of the raise that was given in 2001 had decreased so that a judge serving today was making 17 percent less than he was eight years ago,” Hudson said.

Johnson said prior to the raise, Mississippi judges were the lowest paid in the country.

“I enjoy my job most days, but it was kind of getting where you were losing ground, because every time the insurance would go up, you would see your check go down,” he said. “The state also increased amount of retirement they held out, so we had actually seen our paychecks shrink over the last few years, and we felt like we were back to something reasonable.”

Over the last 10 years, the workload has increased exponentially, Johnson said, with caseloads adding up to the point that last week the court had to have a special criminal session just to clear some cases out.

“You get one thing taken care of, and there is another one right there,” Johnson said. “This is my 19th year as a judge, and I was at the district attorney’s office before that, and we didn’t have the number of cases we did then.”

Harper said that while he appreciates the additional personal income, he was happy because it means he can pay his assistant district attorneys at a more competitive rate. The statute that set the new rates of pay for district attorneys caps the salary of assistant district attorneys who have been practicing for less than 15 years at 85 percent of the district attorney’s salary. Those who have been practicing more than 15 years can earn as much as 90 percent of the district attorney’s income.

Harper has three assistants, Debra Blackwell, Walt Brown and David Hall. All of them have been practicing for at least 16 years, he said.

“In the old days, assistants would work three or four years and then go into private practice, but now it has become a specialized area of the law, and it becomes important to have experienced people working with you to handle the cases you are dealing with,” Harper said.

“Our caseloads per assistant are much higher than the surrounding states, and the pay was considerably less, and each year that passed it was considerably less because the other states were compensating their people more fairly. You can see somebody coming out of school making more than you are when you have been practicing for 15 years, and it makes you sort of evaluate what you have been doing for you and your family.”

Hudson said a similar consideration could be made for judges. In Adams County, the county judge is not allowed to practice law.

“The judges who are responsible for the determination of cases are in a profession where if they weren’t judges they would be a lot more fiscally successful, it can undermine the integrity of the system,” he said. “As a judge you will never be in a situation to be as fiscally successful as someone who is in your field who pursues private practice, so the state doesn’t want to make it so impossible that (it) doesn’t have people who are unwilling to become judges even though they are competent for that position.”

Davis, Sanders and Ward could not be reached for comment.

Other officials

The salaries of other Adams County officials are calculated in different ways, and come from the county coffers.

The sheriff’s salary is linked by law to the county’s population, though the supervisors are allowed to supplement it by as much as $10,000.

Across Mississippi, chancery and circuit clerks’ salaries are capped at $90,000, but the clerks are able to earn additional pay through the collection of fees.

The salaries for the board of supervisors and the tax collector and assessor are set by the valuation of the county, and the pay given to the board attorney is based off of — and equal to — what the supervisors earn.

The supervisors’ financial planner, Demery Gubbs, said this week that the value of a tax mill could increase as the industries that have committed to Adams County begin to come online.

It’s possible that the increase in value could move the salaries of those officials whose pay is tied to the valuation up, though the increase would have to be significant. The current assessed value of Adams County is $223,639,846, and at that level supervisors pay is capped at $40,000 annually.

If the valuation of the county surpasses $300 million, the supervisors’ pay could be increased to $44,700.

Board attorney Scott Slover said the pay increase would not be automatic and that the supervisors would have to approve it before the raise went into effect.

The tax collector and assessor would see an increase of $2,000 a year if the county’s assessed value valuation exceeded $250 million.

 

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