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Some County Magistrates Might Be Double Dipping, State’s Top Judge Says

Some South Carolina county magistrates might be double dipping by serving as local municipal judges – and getting paid for it – while they are still on the clock for their magistrate duties, according to the state’s top judge.

In a July 23 memo obtained by The Nerve, S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal instructed magistrates who also serve as municipal judges to “follow the mandate in the orders that your county responsibilities not be infringed by your service as a municipal judge.”

Toal in the memo said she “remains concerned that some of you are serving your respective municipal courts during times of the day when you are assigned to be serving as a magistrate, thereby being paid twice for the same hours.”

“This was not the intent of the orders of the various Chief Justices authorizing magistrates to serve as municipal judges,” Toal continued.

Toal didn’t identify any of the magistrates in question or say how many might be involved. The Nerve this week asked Toal to identify the magistrates and also provide specifics as to what has been done in those cases, but in a written response, Rosalyn Frierson, the state court administrator, said Toal wasn’t planning to comment publicly on the matter – for now.

“This is a very busy week for us with the Annual Judicial Conference,” Frierson wrote. “The Chief Justice stated in the memorandum all that she is prepared to state on the subject at this time.”

Of 306 county magistrates in the state, 56, or 18 percent, also serve as local municipal judges in their respective counties, according to information provided by the Judicial Department. Of those, at least 16 serve two or more municipalities, court records show.

Magistrates typically serve as municipal judges in smaller, rural communities that can’t afford to hire full-time municipal judges and have relatively smaller caseloads.

Aiken County resident Jim Bouknight filed several complaints earlier this year with the state Office of Disciplinary Counsel alleging the double-dipping issue with certain magistrates, according to documents provided this week by Bouknight to The Nerve.

The Office of Disciplinary Counsel is an arm of the Supreme Court that investigates, on behalf of the S.C. Commission on Judicial Conduct, alleged ethical violations by judges. The Supreme Court has final say on any disciplinary matters involving judges.

In each case, the Office of Disciplinary Counsel dismissed Bouknight’s allegations, saying in written responses that his complaint “involves matters that would not constitute misconduct or incapacity under these (ethics) rules even if true, and, as such, are outside the jurisdiction of this office and the Commission on Judicial Conduct.”

The Nerve is not identifying any of the magistrates in Bouknight’s complaints because it is not known if any of them are the judges described in Toal’s July 23 memo, which was sent to all magistrates who serve as municipal judges, chief magistrates and associate chief magistrates.

Bouknight asked Toal in writing to investigate the matter, which resulted in the memo, documents show.

“She will monitor this situation to ensure compliance with her directive,” Robert McCurdy, assistant state court administrator, said in a July 30 letter to Bouknight.

“Everything is still going on,” Bouknight told The Nerve. “Nobody will answer the question. Nobody will return my phone calls.”

Bouknight provided The Nerve with payroll records and other official documents he said he obtained under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act. In one case, for example, he alleged that a magistrate serving as a municipal judge was earning more than $139,000 annually between the two jobs, most of which was paid by a county and the balance funded by a municipality.

If accurate, that judge’s total salary would be about $9,000 higher than the annual salary of a state circuit judge – considered a higher-level trial judge – and about $5,000 less than the yearly salary of Toal, who heads the Judicial Department, according to a state salary database.

Bouknight provided The Nerve with a 2006 order from Toal allowing Aiken County magistrates to serve as municipal judges in the county.

That order says the assigned magistrates “shall not be compensated for his service by the municipality.” Bouknight contends some municipalities are getting around the order by transferring funds to the county, which, in turn, pays the magistrates, instead of the municipalities directly paying the magistrates.

In her July 23 memo, Toal said the orders from chief justices authorizing magistrates to serve as municipal judges “specifically provide that, in the event of a conflict, a judge’s county responsibilities shall take precedence over the municipal responsibilities.”

But Toal continued:  “Simply ceasing this process altogether would produce an immediate hardship to those municipalities who rely on these arrangements. Therefore, I am directing that each of you be mindful of the time that you spend as a magistrate and as a magistrate serving as municipal judge, and ensure that you follow the mandate in the orders that your county responsibilities not be infringed by your service as a municipal judge.”

“Any significant or repeated violation should be reported to me through Court Administration,” Toal concluded.

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org.

Ethics Judiciary

municipal judges S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal magistrates Office of Disciplinary Counsel