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Judges' salaries protected by Constitution

ALBANY, Ga. -- While Dougherty County employees will have to take up to 12 unpaid holidays beginning July 1 should the County Commission pass its proposed FY 2011 budget, a constitutional protection originally designed to protect judges from political retribution will prevent the county from forcing its judges to do the same.

Facing declining tax revenues and a dwindling reserve, Dougherty County Administrator Richard Crowdis has recommended the Commission change existing county holidays from paid to unpaid holidays and create three additional holidays so that county employees have to take only one unpaid day each month.

The cut, which will save an estimated $1.8 million, amounts to a 4.6 percent pay cut for most county employees.

But the county's judges, who receive a supplement from the county in addition to their base salaries paid by the state, are protected by the Georgia Constitution from cuts in pay.

Chief Dougherty Superior Court Judge Willie Lockette, who appeared this week before the county's Finance Committee, wrote in a letter to Crowdis, the commissioners who serve on the committee and County Attorney Spencer Lee, that Section VII, Paragraph V specifically protects the salaries of judges from being decreased by the state or county governments.

"I write to advise that the reduction in salaries and/or supplements for Superior, State, Magistrate, Probate and Juvenile Judges that are included in the 2010-2011 proposed budgets, if adopted, will violate the Georgia Constitution," Lockette wrote, before including the text of the Constitution. "In light of the above, I urge the Finance Committee to withdraw the proposed reductions in judge's salaries and/or supplements from the 2010-2011 budgets and not submit them to the Board of Commissioners for approval."

While the state Constitution appears to prevent the county from forcing judges to take the 4.6 percent pay cut, it allows for the judges to voluntarily relinquish that amount if they so choose.

In Gwinnett County, for instance, a total of 21 Superior Court, State Court and Magistrate Court judges have taken voluntary pay cuts in a show of support for court staff who members have been forced to take state-mandated furloughs.

That practice started in Gwinnett County when nine of 10 Superior Court judges voluntarily gave up the equivalent of three unpaid work days in wages last fall when Gov. Sonny Perdue mandated across-the-board budget cuts, according to a report on AccessNorthGeorgia.com.

The Council of Superior Court Judges gave that same option, the pay equivalent to three unpaid days, to all of the 202 Superior Court judges in the state. According to a statement made to the Fulton Daily Report in February, former Council Chairman Judge Melvin K. Westmoreland said 147 of the judges had chosen to do so.

But those judges who didn't take the cut so angered some in the General Assembly that members of the Senate Judiciary Committee took up discussions in February as to whether they should forget discussions of cutting pay altogether and just get rid of judges in circuits where there was not a dire need.

Fast forward a few months, and the discussions that have been raging on the state level now find themselves recurring on the local government level.

According to records requested from the Dougherty County Finance Department, Lockette, Judge Stephen Goss, Judge Denise Marshall and Senior Judge Loring Gray make a total of $102,501.51 in wages paid by the county in addition to their state salaries.

Lockette, as chief judge, makes $29,132.79 in pay from the county and $120, 252 from the state. Goss and Marshall each receive the same supplement from the county: $26,974.36. Goss receives the same amount of money from the state as Lockette, $120, 252, according to FY '09 salary figures posted on Open.georgia.gov.

Marshall, who had only been in office during part of the FY '09 budget year, has what appears to be a portion of her state pay listed for that year, which is $59,670.56.

The Herald attempted to contact Lockette, Goss and Marshall Friday afternoon and, as of press time, Goss was the only judge to have returned the call.

Goss, who said he did voluntarily give up part of his state pay, said he would consider cutting his county pay if he was asked.

"I haven't been approached about it, other than by you," Goss said. "But, if and when I'm asked, I would give it due consideration and make a personal decision."

The remainder of the county judges -- Probate Court Judge Nancy Stephenson, State Court Judge John Salter, Chief Magistrate Baxter Howell, Magistrate Victoria Darrisaw, Magistrate Robert Revell and Juvenile Court Judge Herbie Solomon -- are paid by the county only; however, they too are protected by the same constitutional statute as the Superior Court judges.

Salter has already asked the Finance Committee to spare his office from the unpaid holiday requirement. While he is apparently covered by the statute, his employees are not.

Crowdis' recommendation to the committee would allow for three paid holidays but would create a total of six new unpaid holidays. In total, 12 days, one in each month, will be unpaid.

The way Crowdis said his plan works, is that most of the existing holidays during which the county offices are closed for business, will go from being paid to unpaid holidays.

The exceptions are holidays where there are additional days like Thanksgiving, during which county employees typically get Thursday and Friday off to make a long weekend. If the Commission passes Crowdis' plan, Thursday will remain a paid holiday but Friday will not.

"We're trying to do this the best way that we can so that we only have one each month, and we tried to make sure that they were even spread out to the point ... where they were in alternating pay cycles or pay periods," he said.

But for the months where there are no holidays, like June, Crowdis has chosen a day that is as far between the unpaid holidays in May and July as possible.

All of the unpaid days will fall on either Fridays or Mondays, he said.