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Case heads to Georgia Supreme Court

A Pike County case will be argued before the Georgia Supreme Court this week. County officials are appealing a lower court’s decision barring them from interfering with the operations of the magistrate court and finding they illegally reduced the salary of the chief magistrate judge. In an Aug. 13 summary judgement, senior judge Stephen Boswell ‘“ who is not affiliated with the Griffin Superior Court Circuit serving Pike ‘“ ruled against Pike County, siding with all the arguments brought forth by recently re-elected magistrate judge Marcia Callaway-Ingram’s attorney A. Lee Parks Jr. ’The court is sympathetic to the financial crisis the county found itself in beginning in the summer of 2010 and going forward. Nevertheless, the rights afforded by Georgia’s Constitution and its statutes do not vary with the fiscal workings of the county,’ stated Judge Boswell in the order. ‘The county ignored Callaway-Ingram’s objections raised after the budget was created about Pike’s failure to adequately fund the magistrate court so it could operate at a level that permitted it to fulfill all its responsibilities. When Callaway-Ingram made the needs of the magistrate court known to the county, Pike refused to provide for those needs. The county manager (Bill Sawyer) conceded the refusal to adequately fund the magistrate court hurt the court’s operations.’ The order stated compensation for Georgia magistrate judges is set by statute and granted Ingram’s request for reimbursement for two years of employment at a reduced rate of pay. The pay during the four year term of the magistrate judge position was set by the state at $63,139 a year. Callaway-Ingram was only being paid $49,182 starting June 29, 2010. The order would require Pike to reimburse her nearly $28,000 in back pay. Pike was also ordered to pay the full amount reasonable for attorneys’ fees incurred during the lawsuit. County attorney Donald Cronin Jr. argues the trial court erred by ruling a county lacks authority to lower a salary for a judicial office while the office is vacant. When a county establishes a salary for a particular judge, ‘That salary is only guaranteed for that particular judge for the duration of the term at issue.’ A replacement judge ‘does not inherit as a matter of law the salary set for the elected chief magistrate at the commencement of the statutory term.’ Cronin claims the trial court erred in ruling that, ‘Once a salary has been set for the office of chief magistrate at the commencement of the four year term, that salary is locked in for the duration of the term regardless of whether the elected chief magistrate resigns during that statutory term.’ He argues the trial court’s ruling is contrary to the state Constitution which states that an ‘incumbent’s salary, allowance or supplement shall not be decreased during the incumbent’s term of office.’ There is no incumbent while an office is vacant, the attorney contends. In November 2008, Priscilla Killingsworth was re-elected for a four-year term as chief magistrate. At the beginning of her term, Pike budgeted her annual salary at $63,139. In 2010, Killingsworth resigned after the Georgia Bureau of Investigation began investigating her for allegations of wrongdoing. By law, superior court judges were tasked with appointing her replacement. They announced they intended to appoint someone who had a law degree, in contrast with Killingsworth who only had a high school education. Callaway-Ingram, an attorney with a private law practice in Zebulon, applied for the position and in May 2010 the judges appointed her to serve the rest of the 2009-12 term. Ingram was sworn in June 1, 2010. The county budget still listed the salary at $63,139. The parties dispute what happened next. According to Pike, prior to her appointment, Ingram met with the commission chairman and negotiated an initial salary of $49,182 ‘during the first year (of her service) in exchange for (her) having the freedom to take time as needed to finish (her) private cases’¦.’ According to Ingram, she discussed with the chairman her need for some time to wind down her private practice and she agreed to a ‘temporary reduction in salary’ until she closed her practice and began working full-time as a judge. On June 29, 2010, the commissioners adopted a fiscal year 2010-11 budget that listed the chief magistrate’s permanent salary as $49,182. A year later, Pike again approved the reduced amount in the 2011-12 budget, citing the budget crisis. In August 2011, Ingram sued Pike and filed a petition for a writ of mandamus to force Pike officials to pay her the salary that by law should not have been altered. She also contended that Pike had illegally reduced from full-time to part-time the associate magistrate’s position and she sought an injunction, requesting that Pike be prohibited from withholding personnel applications, arbitrarily underfunding the magistrate court below funding levels required for the court to operate efficiently, and from reducing the salaries of the chief and magistrate judges. In August 2012, the trial court ruled in her favor on all claims. Cronin also argues the trial court misapplied statutory law which states that no ‘magistrate’s compensation’¦shall be decreased during any term of office.’ ’The trial court’s reliance on that language is in error because it is based on the false premise that there is no distinction between the statutorily prescribed term for the office of chief magistrate and the term of office of a particular individual occupying that office,’ he argues. The state Supreme Court ‘has always recognized that the phrase ‘˜term of office’ relates to the person occupying the office, not the office itself.’ The trial court also erred in finding Pike lowered Ingram’s salary after she assumed her judicial duties. ’It is undisputed that her $49,182 salary has not been reduced since she has been an incumbent,’ the attorney argues. It was ‘reduced prior to her assuming her duties ‘“ with her consent and input ‘“ and it has remained unchanged since that date.’ The trial court was wrong to rely on the alleged ‘agreement’ between Ingram and the chairman. There was no agreement to raise her salary above the amount she was paid initially and the chairman was not empowered to unilaterally negotiate any agreement that would bind Pike. That court also was wrong in ruling Pike illegally reduced the associate magistrate’s position from full-time to part-time. It was wrong to issue a permanent injunction preventing Pike from interfering with Ingram’s ‘ability to interview and hire personnel for the magistrate court,’ because evidence did not support that it had withheld job applications or under-staffed or under-funded the court. Among other errors, the trial court was also wrong to award attorney’s fees to Ingram, Pike argues. Callaway-Ingram’s attorneys argue the ‘trial court properly held that the county wrongfully reduced the salary for chief magistrate during a term of office.’ Georgia case law and statutory law are clear. Under the state Supreme Court’s 2004 ruling in Poppell vs. Gault, ‘A county governing authority (may not) reduce the compensation of one appointed to fill the unexpired term of chief magistrate after the appointment.’ As its 1998 decision in Lee vs. Peach County commissioners found, ‘The evidence established Ingram was entitled to a writ of mandamus to recover the salary owed to her.’ The facts refute that the county reduced the chief magistrate’s salary only when the office was vacant. Ingram was appointed May 25, 2010 and sworn in on June 1. The county commission did not reduce the salary until 28 days later, on June 29. ’It would be very disconcerting if the successful appointee to an elected position could then suffer a unilateral 22% pay cut for the duration of the unexpired term,’ the attorneys argue. ‘It would give the county manager and commissioners ‘“ who were not responsible for selecting the appointee ‘“ an effective veto power over the appointment and would subordinate the superior court judges to the political will of the commissioners’¦.’ The trial court also properly ruled that the Georgia Constitution prohibits Pike from reducing a magistrate judge to part-time in the middle of a term. The trial court properly granted Ingram injunctive relief barring county interference with the efficient operation of the magistrate court. ’The most important evidence shows that the county persistently underfunded the magistrate court,’ Ingram’s attorneys argue. Even the former county manager testified Pike’s refusal to adequately fund the court hurt its operations. Lastly, they argue the trial court properly awarded Ingram attorney’s fees.

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