Magistrate judges take Beaufort County to court over pay hike

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Magistrate judges take Beaufort County to court over pay hike

By KYLE PETERSON
kpeterson@beaufortgazette.com
Published Thursday, December 15, 2011   |  547 Words  |  

Three Beaufort County magistrate judges have taken the County Council to court over a state-mandated pay raise they say was implemented about three months late.

An attorney for the magistrates presented their case to county officials Nov. 14, but the council did not agree with their arguments.

Now the three magistrates -- Beth Prince, David Taub and Lawrence McElynn -- have filed an appeal asking a 14th Circuit Court judge to intervene.

No one disputes that state law requires a pay raise for magistrates when a county's population tops 150,000, as Beaufort County's did during the 2010 Census.

The question is when that raise should take effect.

Council approved it effective July 1, the beginning of its fiscal year.

But the magistrates say the raise should have kicked in March 22, when the new census figures became official.

For all 11 magistrate judges across the county, the additional raise would cost about $20,000.

Taxpayers could be on the hook for attorneys fees as well, though, should the county lose the suit.

"I expect to win this case on the merits," said Butch Bowers, a Columbia attorney representing the judges. "The county was well aware of the effective date of the salary increase, as the record reflects."

In court documents filed Tuesday, Bowers called the county's decision "clearly erroneous," and "arbitrary, capricious and characterized by an abuse of or a clearly unwarranted exercise of discretion."

During arguments before council last month, he pointed to a memo from Jean Toal, chief justice of the S.C. Supreme Court, that argues a judge who accepts a salary other than specified by state law could be violating his or her oath of office or breaking the Canons of Judicial Conduct.

Council Chairman Weston Newton said Thursday the law is much more conflicted about the situation than those court filings suggest.

"Given the context that we find ourselves in, and based on the advice that we have recieved, it's not a clear issue," he said.

During the November council meeting, county attorney Josh Gruber argued that counties are not required to bear the cost of a new state mandate in the middle of a budget year. Several council members also said they could not vote to extend the raises when other county employees have not been given raises for years.

Follow reporter Kyle Peterson at twitter.com/EyeOnBeaufortCo.

Related content

  1. Beth Prince v. Beaufort County - notice of appeal, Dec. 13, 2011
  2. S.C. Supreme Court memo on judicial pay, April 13, 2009
  3. Letter from Beth Prince to county attorney Josh Gruber, July 21, 2011
  4. Magistrates might take Beaufort council to court for pay hike, Nov. 14, 2011