Hamilton County is looking for four good magistrates – with emphasis on the word “good.”
And to entice the kind of applicants they hope the positions will attract, members of the County Commission’s legal committee on Thursday agreed to increase the salaries currently paid.
Under the proposal, magistrates will earn $57,000 annual salaries. The individual chosen to act as chief magistrate will take home an extra $5,000 per year, bringing his or her total salary to $63,000.
That proposal, like other recommendations regarding the positions, will be taken before the full commission for approval.
Legal committee members indicated they will also consult Circuit Court and Sessions Court judges to hear their suggestions on how to upgrade the magistrate program.
Current magistrates’ positions will expire in October. If the individuals currently holding those jobs are interested in winning one of the four newly defined positions, they must apply just like everybody else.
All applicants should be interviewed by the full commission, legal committee members said, before any decisions are made on who should be hired.
Tennessee law mandates that magistrates be lawyers, according to Commissioner John Brooks, himself an attorney. Since the position will require working evenings and/or nights, magistrates would almost certainly have to close their private practices.
Consequently, the size of the salary offered will be the major factor in determining how many attorneys would be willing to consider accepting the position, he said.
During a marathon meeting Thursday morning, commissioners made it clear they want an end to the snafus that have troubled the magistrate’s office since it was created.
“I want some dignity to it,” Commissioner Curtis Adams said flatly. “I want them to wear robes.”
Legal committee members spelled out the parameters they envision for incoming magistrates, whose correct job title under Tennessee law is “judicial commissioners.” They envisioned magistrates selected for four-year terms, with terms expiring on a rotating basis.
During weekdays, commissioners said, a magistrate should be on duty at all times between 4 p.m. and 8 a.m. – the hours when judges generally are not in the courthouse. And on weekends, the magistrate’s office would be available three shifts a day.
All together, that means magistrates would be responsible for staffing 16 shifts per week, Commissioner Brooks noted. And since there will be four magistrates, each of them would work four shifts each week.
Special part-time magistrates, approved by the County Commission, would fill in when a regular magistrate missed work due to illness, vacation or other reason.
On the issue of supervision, General Sessions Court Judge Bob Moon said, "I whole-heartedly agree with Commissioner Brooks that the General Sessions Court judges should not be over the magistrates. In fact, none of the five General Sessions Court Judges have either the interest nor the authority to supervise judicial commissioners. This is an old issue that has been beaten to death."
He said several years ago the Tennessee State Attorney General ruled that the Hamilton County Commission had no disciplinary authority over the judicial commissioners.
Judge David Bales stated, "The Attorney General's opinion, the separation of powers doctrine and applicable law are clear that the judicial commissioners answer to Tennessee Court of the Judiciary. We (the judges) have no supervisory or disciplinary power of them nor would we assume such authority."
The committee entertained suggestions that the Sessions Judges could alternate supervisory authority over the judicial commissioners rotating on a weekly basis. Judge Moon said, "Unfortunately, the Hamilton County Commission has no legal basis to grant or compel such supervisory authority to the Sessions Judges, and we have no legal authority to assume or enforce such supervisory duties."
Judges Moon and Bales commended the committee members on recommending that the judicial commissioners' salaries be increased.
Judge Bales said, "This salary increase is more in line with other metropolitan systems and should insure the appointments of more qualified judicial commissioners than we have had in the past."
Judge Moon said, "When competent and ethical attorneys are appointed to these necessary and important positions, we should not have the problems that we have frequently had in the past. Therefore, the need for daily supervision should be unnecessary. Nevertheless, we (judges) are always willing to assist and to advise the judicial commissioners on issues relating to the setting of bonds and the issuing of warrants. I am just simply not going to be responsible for the decisions and supervision of others judges."