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Editorial: Raising pay for magistrates remains hard to understand

Feb. 25, 2013 @ 12:24 AM

Plenty of pressing issues have been laid out by the governor and various lawmakers for this year's legislative session. They include Medicaid expansion, education reform, prison overcrowding and substance abuse problems, all with the backdrop of concerns over declining state revenues.

So, it's disappointing that the first bill out of the House of Delegates' hopper last week was legislation to commit $737,000 a year for pay raises for 48 magistrates, 23 magistrate clerks, 48 assistants, and five deputy clerks in the state's less-populated counties. This was similar to a proposal tendered last year but to no avail. The proposal is even more ill-timed now and still avoids one of the core issues -- the criteria for serving as a magistrate.

The goal of the legislation which passed the House and has been sent to the Senate is to eliminate the current two-tier pay structure for magistrates based on population. Apparently what triggered the desire for change was the 2010 Census showing population declines in four counties. That meant the 10 magistrates and court staff in those counties were shifted into the lower-paid category.

The proposed bill doesn't address only the magistrates and court staff in those four counties, however. It eliminates the lower pay tier altogether. The argument is that a single pay structure is more equitable.

That's contrary to the thinking less than 15 years ago when the two-tier system was affirmed in legislation as an "equitable and rational manner" that recognized disparities in caseloads generally aligned with population density. It was also recognized then that magistrates and their staffs were not paid sufficiently so legislation passed in the late 1990s spelled out a series of pay raises. For magistrates in the lower tiers, the increases amounted to 67 percent in less than 10 years, to an annual salary of $51,125. The legislation proposed now would increase those magistrates' pay by $6,375 more to match the $57,500 paid magistrates in more populous counties.

How many other West Virginia residents have seen such a dramatic increase in their pay in such a short time? How many are likely to receive one this year? And it doesn't appear that state government employees generally are in line for any dramatic increases this year as budget concerns prevail.

The missing part of this whole discussion has been whether the criteria for magistrates should be raised. Currently, the chief qualifications are that they be 21 years old and have a high school diploma or an equivalent degree. Lawmakers may talk occasionally about how the educational requirement should be strengthened, but nothing has materialized. Yet, those who back the pay raise say the job has become more complicated.

All magistrates and their staffs are now paid a fair amount for their duties. In the case of magistrates, these are elected positions that were willingly sought out by those who now hold them. The magistrates whose pay was decreased due to population changes knew full well before they sought election last year what the pay would be.

Those who want to boost magistrates' pay haven't made a strong enough case to justify it under the current circumstances. They should move on to issues that are more worthy of attention.

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