CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Perhaps Tuesday was the calm before the storm on the House floor.
Following jabs between Republican and Democrat delegates Monday concerning a bill raising the pay of certain magistrates and their staffers, lawmakers saved further debate for today's session.
Democrats by and large favor the measure, which eliminates the current population-based pay structure. That would mean pay raises for roughly one third of all magistrates, and the cost of all the raises would be $737,000 a year. Most Republicans are opposed.
Delegate Patrick Lane, R-Kanawha, spoke against the measure last week when it came before the House Judiciary Committee. He said it's not the time to talk about increasing pay for elected officials when so many state residents are unemployed.
He also pointed out it's the latest in a series of raises for magistrates.
"If this passes, they've had four pay raises in 10 years totaling $27,000. The last pay raise was 18 months ago, and that was $7,500," Lane said Tuesday after the House session.
Magistrates received a $3,000 pay raise in 2003; $10,000 in 2005; and $7,500 in 2011.
Right now, the job pays $51,125 a year in counties with fewer than 8,400 people. Magistrates in counties with larger populations are paid $57,500. The bill would take all magistrates to the higher rate.
The state Supreme Court, which oversees the state court system, favors the pay raise, court administrator Steve Canterbury said. He said a magistrate position is a highly demanding job that requires extensive knowledge of the law and unwavering patience.
"They were woefully underpaid, and that was recognized by the Legislature in 2003. They were absurdly underpaid," Canterbury said.
The positions don't command a great deal of respect, Canterbury said, but magistrates perform a great deal of work. Those in larger counties do hear more cases, but he said it's the type of case that's important.
In smaller counties — he referred to McDowell County — the percentage of domestic violence hearings is higher than in larger counties.
Such cases are more taxing than the traffic tickets that come before many urban magistrates, he said. Rural magistrates often are forced to oversee mental hygiene hearings, something attorneys typically handle in larger counties. It requires additional training but comes with no extra pay, Canterbury said.
There must always be a magistrate on call in every county, Canterbury said. The state constitution mandates at least two magistrates per county, and the most in any county is 10. Larger counties can spread those on-call hours around, but magistrates in smaller counties are on call half of the year.
It's very different to be called out of bed at 2 a.m. and handle a clan of people who descend upon a courtroom to settle a domestic incident than it is to hear one during the regular course of a day, Canterbury argues.
Lane isn't buying it.
Magistrates in larger counties might handle 3,500 cases a year, or about 10 each day, he said. Those in smaller counties might get 500 a year, or two a day. Those numbers include any late-night calls that might come in, Lane said.