Greg Land,email@example.com, Special to the Fulton County Daily Report
“A little case with big implications,” said Parks, Chesin & Walbert partner Lee Parks in describing a Superior Court judge’s ruling that the Pike County Commission illegally slashed the salary, staff and budget of Pike County Chief Magistrate Marcia Callaway-Ingram shortly after she was appointed to fill the position in 2010.
Parks said that while the sums involved — about $30,000 in back pay and $60,000 in legal fees — may seem relatively minor, the Aug. 13 order signed by Clayton County Senior Superior Court Judge Stephen Boswell should sound a warning to other local officials eyeing the courts to plug holes in their budgets.
“This little case stands for a couple of important points. One, you cannot balance your budget on the back of the judiciary,” said Parks. “And when a county commission creates hardships for the courts, the judiciary has a right to independent counsel, and can go to court and win.”
Neither Pike County Attorney Rob Morton nor Rob Cronin of McDonough’s O’Quinn & Cronin, who Parks said represents the county’s insurer, responded to requests for comment on the case.
Callaway-Ingram was appointed to the position when then-Chief Magistrate Patricia Killingsworth resigned in the midst of a Georgia Bureau of Investigation probe into her conduct in office. (Killingsworth pleaded guilty to one count of malpractice in office for failing to deposit funds into her office’s account promptly, and was sentenced to one year of probation and a $1,000 fine.)
According to Boswell’s order, which Parks prepared, in June 2010 the county adopted a budget slashing the chief magistrate’s salary from $63,139 to $49,182. The budget also halved the salary of the associate magistrate, Loretta Rakestraw, and changed her position from full time to part time.
Rakestraw took an extended vacation and then stopped coming to work, and Callaway-Ingram suspended her without pay, according to the order. Rakestraw sued the county, which settled by reinstating her as associate magistrate on a part-time basis but with full-time benefits, and guaranteeing her the job through the end of 2012; she also received a $20,000 payment, funded by the Magistrate Court’s budget, without Callaway-Ingram’s consultation or approval.
In 2011, Callaway-Ingram sued the Pike County Commission and Morton, who also was serving as interim county manager, asking the court to restore her salary and restore the associate magistrate’s position to a full-time, fully funded position. She also asked for back pay with interest and attorney fees.
Callaway-Ingram had asked the county to provide independent counsel, said Parks, and received a one-word email response from Morton: “no.” Her suit also asked the court to rule that the budgets cuts and denial of conflict-free counsel constituted interference with the operation of her court.
In June, Boswell, sitting by appointment, convened a hearing on cross motions for summary judgment filed by both parties.
The order he signed cites the Georgia Constitution’s provision providing that no magistrate’s compensation may be reduced during his term of office and Georgia Supreme Court precedent in agreeing that the county had illegally cut the chief magistrate’s salary and staff.
The order also said the county “in fact interfered materially with Ingram’s obligation to operate the Pike County Magistrate Court,” and granted the full amount of Callaway-Ingram’s attorney fees.
On Aug. 21, Callaway-Ingram defeated Rakestraw in a runoff election for the chief magistrate’s job.
“So they have to decide whether to negotiate on fees or deal with us for another four years,” Parks said.
He said the Pike County Commission recently voted to allow an appeal, but that he doesn’t know whether one will be filed.
“They’re talking about preserving their right to appeal,” said Parks. “As I was telling the Pike County attorney, you may rue the day you establish appellate case law that the judiciary has an independent right to contest a county’s decision to cut the staff, cut the budget and deny independent counsel to the judiciary.”
The case is Callaway-Ingram v. Pike County, No. 2011CV385.