Four General Sessions Court judges, the district attorney and the Criminal Court clerk appeared before the County Commission on Wednesday to shoot down a suggestion by Commissioner Joe Graham for replacing four full-time magistrates with one full-time and a fleet of part-time civil attorneys.
Commissioner Graham said the change had the potential of saving the county over $400,000 a year, though Chairman Randy Fairbanks said those numbers had not come from county financial officials and needed to be verified.
Commissioner Graham said he had "just been throwing out a suggestion" after some attorneys called him with the idea.
Judge Christie Sell said the magistrate post "is one of the most important jobs in our community" and should not be left to part-time attorneys unable to practice criminal law. The full-time magistrates cannot practice criminal or civil law so their pay was recently raised by the commission.
Judge Sell said giving those charged with crimes due process is a primary consideration. She said the county could face liability issues if most of the bonds and search warrants were handled by part-time civil lawyers.
Judge Clarence Shattuck also spoke against the change, saying the system is working very well now. He said, "We have had fewer issues over the last two years than any time in the history of the program."
Judges Gary Starnes and Lila Statom were also present.
District Attorney Neal Pinkston said the change "could have a detrimental effect on the entire judicial system."
He said the magistrates handle over 50,000 cases a year, and "we need highly competent people" serving. He said the change could also slow up the booking process at the jail - especially if a civil attorney had a conflict and could not hear a case and another magistrate had to be fetched.
Vince Dean, Criminal Court clerk, also expressed concern about the move and its effect on the flow of cases.
Randy Russell, who has been a magistrate for eight years including the last five as chief magistrate, said there was a move away from part-time magistrates after early problems in the program. He said fill-ins are seldom used any more.
Commissioner Chester Bankston said, "From what I've heard today, it would be disastrous if we did this."
Commissioner Greg Beck said, "As far as I'm concerned, we were on the right track in the first place."