Judge due 28% pay raise

Friday, May 6, 2011

Marshall County's General Sessions Court judge is due an annual pay raise of $27,655 this summer and he should become a full-time judge without a private law practice, according to state law as interpreted by state court system administrators.

However, Judge Steve Bowden, speaking at his 1st Avenue South law office on Wednesday, shows no intention of taking down his shingle, and he will still preside in court on Tuesdays, or when needed, as he has for decades. His reasons include the view that he was elected by voters and governmental power comes from the people.

As for the 28 percent pay raise, Bowden grinned a bit, looked down and shook his head. When congratulated on his pay raise, he replied that he wasn't so sure that's in order, not just yet.

His annual salary is $98,762.51, according to a spreadsheet released by the Administrative Office of the Courts. On April 1, it was to have increased to $124,426.61, and starting July 1, it's to be $126,417.44.

The Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts works closely with the state Supreme Court so the business of the judicial branch of state government is operated smoothly. Directed by Elizabeth Sykes, the AOC is comparable to the Circuit Court Clerk's office.

On March 25, Sykes wrote to all general sessions court judges saying the 2010 census activated a state law on "county class population ranges" and applicable salaries.

"It should be noted," Sykes wrote, "that two counties, Claiborne and Marshall, moved from a class 4 to a class 3 county.

"By statute, judges in these counties move from part-time judges to full-time judges that are prohibited from maintaining a law practice," she said.

Implications of Sykes' letter have been realized by various county leaders who are entering what's commonly called "budget time," meaning they must calculate revenue and expenditures and make them match for the next fiscal year that starts July 1.

Meanwhile, some participants in the court system who've spoken on a condition that they not be named have explained that a system of part-time judges can raise questions that are addressed in the canons of ethics for the practice of law. It's not unusual, nor is it illegal or inherently unethical for Bowden to represent a client in front of Lewisburg City Court on one day and then the next day preside in the county Courthouse where City Judge Roger Brandon represents another client in a completely unrelated case.

"I'm going to keep my law practice," Bowden said. "I'm of the opinion that I can still keep my law practice until my term ends in 2014."

County and circuit court judges, district attorneys and public defenders serve eight-year terms in Tennessee.

Other government employee salaries are increased in accordance with a pay schedule tied to the federal census, as are other aspects of government operations. For example, some cities issue only so many liquor store permits based on the municipality's population. The number of liquor stores doubled when Franklin's population went from some 22,000 people in 1990 to 45,000 in 2000.

The census is conducted every 10 years as required by the U.S. Constitution to be sure that congressional districts have approximately the same number of people. The same one-man, one-vote ruling applies to state and county legislative districts, a fact noted by Bowden.

"But it does not take effect in the middle of a term," Marshall's sessions court judge said.

"People voted for me as a part-time judge and I don't think they can change that," Bowden said.

"It's my opinion that I ran for the job as a part-time position -- as a part-time judge -- and that they can't change that in the middle of the term."

A different set of circumstances arose approximately 30 years ago when state lawmakers wanted to impose "concurrent jurisdiction" to have the same territory served by civil and criminal circuit court judges and chancellors who preside over a court of equity - Chancery Court where most divorce cases are heard, among other questions of law such as zoning for a mosque in Murfreesboro.

At that time, Chancellor Fricks Stewart of Winchester contended that lawmakers could not remove a county from his jurisdiction because he was elected by the people and was serving people in families who relied on his memory of their case for justice.

Ultimately, the bottom line is where authority lies. Stewart and Bowden seem to agree that it's with the people by way of elections.

"I haven't seen any rulings," Bowden replied when asked if there's case law on the current issue over whether or when a judge may be required to relinquish a private practice of law. "I've seen some opinions."

The sessions judge's remarks clearly indicated he knows the clichés about opinions and concluded that they're without the authority of case law or statute from a state legislature.

The latter is usually acknowledged to be subservient to federal law.

"If a court of law says I can't practice [law as an attorney] and be a judge, too, then I'll make a decision," Bowden said. "It's not to that point yet...

"I just don't know yet," he said.

Just across 1st Avenue South from Bowden's law office is the Marshall County Courthouse Annex where the county mayor's office is located with various other offices dealing with the tax base, revenue, spending and budgeting.

The pay increase calculated for Bowden is a concern for those elected and appointed leaders.

"That's something we'll have to look at," County Mayor Joe Boyd Liggett said Wednesday evening.

He's spoken with state Rep. Eddie Bass (D-Prospect) and state Sen. Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro) on what can be done.

Liggett and County Commission Chairman Tom Sumners have expressed an interest in preventing the payment of retroactive salary to Bowden. County costs and concern for dwindling revenues are the issues.

Bass and Ketron might be working on it after the Legislature adjourns, Liggett said.