CHARLESTON – House Majority Leader Brent Boggs said he hopes the Senate will move forward legislation to equalize the salaries for county magistrates.
House Bill 4392 would provide that all magistrates, magistrate assistants, magistrate court clerks and deputy clerks be paid equally, and eliminate the current two-tier system that ties salary to county population.
It passed the House and was sent to the state Senate. But as of March 8, its hopes of passage were dim as it still sat in the Senate Finance Committee two days before the end of the regular session.
"Rural magistrates –- many of whom actually have larger caseloads than those in more heavily populated counties with multiple magistrates to share the work – should not be penalized for living in smaller counties," Boggs, D-Braxton, said. "As the lead sponsor of this bill, and as someone who has been working on this issue for years, I know that magistrates in my home county of Braxton and many other rural magistrates have a higher per-magistrate caseload than those in Kanawha County, who make thousands more per year.
"It's simply unfair."
The legislation was requested by the state Supreme Court's Administrative Office after the West Virginia Magistrate Association recommended the move.
On a side note, the 2010 Census notes a decrease in population for Lewis, McDowell, Wetzel and Wyoming counties. If the Legislature fails to pass legislation equalizing the magistrate court system in regard to pay, the magistrate court personnel's salary in those four counties will be reduced Jan. 1.
Under the legislation, which the House adopted last week, all magistrates, regardless of population served, would be paid $57,500. All magistrate court clerks, $44,720; magistrate assistants, $39,348; and magistrate court deputy clerks, $39,348.
"I don't see how there could be opposition to leveling the playing field," Boggs said.
Now, magistrates in counties with populations of less than 8,400 people make $51,125, while those in counties with higher populations make $57,500. Magistrates' staff in lower population counties also make less. The bill would equalize magistrate salaries at $57,500, regardless of county size and provide equal pay for staff.
Steve Canterbury, Supreme Court Administrator, said the two-tier pay system goes back to the major overhaul of the judicial system in the 1970s when Justices of the Peace were eliminated.
"The salaries were based on population," he explained. "Less population meant less work. But that hasn't been the case for some time now. Varying degrees of caseload don't necessarily reflect population anymore."
Canterbury said there also has been talk of freezing the pay of the magistrates in the four counties that would be affected by the 2010 Census numbers.
"But Barbour County, which now has more population than those four counties, still would have a lower salary," he said. "That seems a little unfair to freeze the four counties, but Barbour magistrates still would be making less than them."
Canterbury said the measure wouldn't require budget increase for now. It would cost the Court an additional $583,100 per year.
"We have made it clear that we would not have to ask for an appropriation increase to cover that this year, and likely not for the next few years," he said. "We could absorb it."
There are 158 magistrates in the state. Each county has at least two. Kanawha has 10. Canterbury noted that magistrates in bigger counties can share workload, such as late-night work. He said magistrates in smaller counties also usually have to do more day-to-day work and other tasks that those in larger counties don't.
"What's happened as time has gone on is that the complexity of the job has grown and the work level has grown - I would argue especially on the less populated counties' magistrates," Canterbury said.