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Magistrate education bill stalls in Senate

Jan. 31, 2012 @ 11:19 PM

CHARLESTON -- The latest attempt to raise educational requirements for magistrates in West Virginia met its demise in the state Senate on Tuesday.

Senate Bill 108, which required magistrates elected or appointed after Jan. 1, 2015, to have at least a two-year associate's degree or four years prior experience as a magistrate, failed by a 19-15 vote on the Senate floor without any debate.

"I'm obviously disappointed in the result," said Sen. Evan Jenkins, D-Cabell and the bill's lead sponsor. "It was a pretty overwhelming defeat, so obviously there is no appetite to seek any additional educational requirements for magistrates."

Magistrates currently have to be 21 years old and have a high school diploma or an equivalent degree. Tuesday's vote marks at least the fourth consecutive year that the Legislature has attempted to raise the educational requirements. Last year, a bill that would have required magistrates to have a bachelor's degree or associate's degree passed the Senate but died on third reading in the House of Delegates.

Magistrates issue arrest and search warrants, hear misdemeanor cases, conduct preliminary examinations in felony cases and hear civil cases with $5,000 or less in dispute. They also issue emergency protective orders in cases involving domestic violence. With advances in technology and additional duties, groups such as the Silver Haired Legislature and the West Virginia Magistrate Association have pushed for raising educational requirements.

"Every year, there are more and more technological responsibilities placed on us just to keep up," said Riley Barb, a Tucker County magistrate and president of the Magistrate Association. "It would be beneficial for the court to have educated people in these positions. It wasn't in the best interests of the court system or the citizens of West Virginia to see this bill defeated."

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, said senators voting against the bill Tuesday may have been influenced by comments made by Chief Supreme Court Justice Menis Ketchum to lawmakers last week.

Ketchum told the House Finance Committee last week that magistrate court is the "people's court" and he personally opposes efforts to require magistrates to have college degrees.

"If you add educational requirements, the next thing you know, they'll all be lawyers, and we'll be paying them $150,000 a year," he was quoted as saying in The Charleston Gazette.

Ketchum declined to comment Tuesday on the bill's defeat. His comments last week, however, were echoed by Sen. Truman Chafin, D-Mingo, who voted against the bill.

"To put restrictions on magistrates such as having two years of college or whatever is unfair, because under certain circumstances people can't attend college," Chafin said. "It's usually economic or socioeconomic reasons. But that doesn't mean they're not good people to serve on the people's court. Some people who don't have a high school degree are the most successful people I know."

According to a January 2009 survey conducted by the Administrative Office of the West Virginia Supreme Court, 61 of the 158 magistrates in the state responded that they had at least an associate's degree. Another 36 said they had some college experience. The survey has not been updated since 2009, and the Magistrate Association has not polled its members regarding their educational background, Barb said.

Magistrates received a $7,500 raise last year as part of a comprehensive pay raise package for state employees. Magistrates make either $57,500 or $51,125 a year, depending on the population of the county they serve.

A bill will be introduced, as early as this week, to bring the salaries of the 38 magistrates making $51,125 up to the same level of magistrates in more populous counties, Barb said. The bill also will include raises for magistrate clerks, magistrate assistants and deputy clerks in the smaller counties. According to information provided by the Supreme Court, the raises would cost $583,100.

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