June 5, 2023

The Nerve

Where Government Gets Exposed

Big-Time Salaries for Part-Time S.C. Judges, Records Show

Gavel MoneyIn South Carolina, there are at least 54 part-time magistrate and municipal judges earning more than $50,000 annually.

At least that’s how state court officials classify them, though several judges contacted by The Nerve offered dissenting opinions about the length of their work weeks and work loads.

Most South Carolinians who experience the state court system likely will do so in either magistrate or municipal courts, which hear traffic cases and minor criminal cases. Magistrates also handle civil cases involving damages of less than $7,500.

Magistrates, who serve four-year terms, are nominated by their county senatorial delegations, appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate. Municipal judges are appointed by their respective municipalities and serve terms of up to four years.

Unlike higher-level judges who are paid with state funds, magistrates and municipal judges are paid by their respective municipalities. There are approximately 600 magistrate and municipal judges, collectively known as summary court judges, in South Carolina. They don’t have to be attorneys under state law, though a number of them are lawyers.

The Nerve recently asked the state Office of Court Administration, a division of the S.C. Supreme Court, for a list of all full- and part-time magistrates and municipal judges, their hours and annual salaries.

The highest-paid municipal judge in the state is Columbia’s chief administrative municipal judge, Dana Turner, an attorney who earns $134,077 annually, which is $26,000 more than South Carolina’s top-paid magistrate, The Nerve’s review found.

Turner is listed as a full-time judge, though state court administration records provided to The Nerve did not list the average number of hours worked weekly for any municipal judge.

In comparison, Turner makes more than family court judges ($130,689) and nearly as much as circuit judges ($134,221), according to a state salary database maintained by The State newspaper. S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal, who heads the state court system, receives $148,350 annually.

The Nerve earlier reported that the state court system’s website and an online state salary database maintained by the S.C. Budget and Control Board list no Judicial Department salaries, which are considered public records under the state Freedom of Information Act.

After Turner, following are the four highest-paid municipal judges in the state, according to court administration records:

  • Samuel Melville Coleman, North Charleston – $110,360;
  • Jennifer Peters Wilson, Myrtle Beach – $108,219;
  • Jane Pitman Modla, Rock Hill – $90,040; and
  • Erika L. McJimpsey, Spartanburg – $89,680.

All four municipal judges are classified as full-time judges. The next highest-paid municipal judge, Maureen T. Coffey-Edri of Hilton Head Island, an attorney, receives $89,610 annually, though she is listed in court administration records as a part-time judge. Efforts Tuesday by The Nerve to reach her were unsuccessful.

The Nerve’s review found that of the 190 part-time municipal judges whose salaries were provided by the Office of Court Administration, 22 make at least $30,000 annually, five of whom, including Coffey-Edri, receive at least $50,000 yearly. The average annual salary in that group is $13,364.

In comparison, the average annual salary among the 63 listed full-time municipal judges was $48,876.

On the magistrate side, the highest-paid judge listed in court administration records is James Paslay of Spartanburg County, who makes $108,007 annually. He is classified in those records as part-time, though his average weekly work week is listed at 38 hours.

“We’re not part-time,” Paslay, an attorney, said when contacted this week by The Nerve. “Spartanburg County considers full-time employees at 37.5 hours a week, and I think that’s where there is confusion with what Court Administration considers.”

“I will tell you I have worked 80 hours a week and got paid for 40,” Paslay added.

Following are the next four highest-paid magistrates, with their average weekly hours in parentheses, according to court administration records:

  • Bart Stephen McGuire, chief judge, Greenwood County – $97,826 (38);
  • Nancy Wilson Devine, chief judge, Anderson County – $94,580 (40);
  • James Benjamin Gosnell, associate chief judge, Charleston County – $89,190 (40); and
  • David Wilson Coker, chief judge, Charleston County – $88,481 (39).

McGuire, Devine and Gosnell each are classified in court administration records as full-time judges, while Coker is listed as part-time, though his reported average hourly work week is just one hour less than Gosnell’s.

Coker disputed his part-time status when contacted this week by The Nerve.

“If you look at this caseload, I’m about as full-time as any magistrate,” he said.

Charleston County court records provided to The Nerve show that of the 58,367 total cases handled by county magistrates last fiscal year, Coker handled 12,604, or about 22 percent of the total.

When asked, though, if he generally works less than 40 hours per week, Coker replied, “Yeah.”

The Nerve also contacted Anderson County Magistrate James Busby, who has the third-highest salary ($85,967) in court administration records for part-time magistrates, though his average weekly work week is listed at 39 hours.

“Due to its population, Anderson County is only allowed three full-time magistrates,” Busby said in a written response. “At thirty-nine hours/week I do consider myself part-time but know I am on call twenty-four hours/day if my services are needed outside office hours.”

The Nerve’s review of state court administration records found that the average annual salary of 149 classified part-time magistrates was $40,036, with 49 judges, including Paslay and Coker, making at least $50,000.

In comparison, the average yearly salary for 157 listed full-time magistrates is $66,161. Of the full-time magistrates, 48, or nearly a third, had listed average work weeks of 38 hours – the same number of hours listed for 15 of the top-paid part-time magistrates.

Asked about the discrepancy, Terry Leverette of the Office of Court Administration told The Nerve in a written response Tuesday, “As to FT vs. PT, some counties consider FT as 37 1/2 (they are more than likely working more than that), because that is what all other full-time employees work.”

“We report what is reported to us, by the chief magistrate each year,” Leverette continued. “As far as the municipals (FT vs. PT and salary), that is up to the mayor and town council.”

State law (Section 22-8-40 of the S.C. Code of Laws) dictates the number of magistrates per county, based on population, geographical size and accommodations tax revenues. Four part-time magistrates equal one full-time magistrate under state law.

The law bans part-time magistrates from working more than 40 hours per week, “unless directed to do so on a limited and intermittent basis by the chief magistrate.” Salaries for part-time magistrates are based upon a percentage of full-time magistrates’ pay, depending upon the average number of hours worked as “fixed by the county governing body upon the recommendation of the chief magistrate.”

Base salaries for full-time magistrates depend primarily on population size and years of service. Leverette noted that given there are three basic salary groups for magistrates based on county population and five pay grades within each group, there are 15 different pay schedules statewide.

State law bans counties from paying magistrates below base salaries under the law, though counties aren’t prohibited from paying more than the “salary established for that county or from paying a merit raise in addition to the salary established for that county.”

Salary information on magistrates provided to The Nerve did not break out additional or merit pay.

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_rick. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.

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