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Former State Court Judge Bruce Roberts asked Walker County, Ga., to pay him $80,000. Instead, he may owe the county $50,000.

The Georgia Supreme Court ruled Monday that Walker County officials -- but really, taxpayers -- never had to pay Roberts as much as they paid his predecessor. The court's decision reversed a lower court judge's ruling from last year and extended the dispute between Roberts and the county.

Gov. Nathan Deal appointed Roberts to the state court bench in September 2011 after Judge Donald Peppers retired. Walker County Sole Commissioner Bebe Heiskell offered to pay him $100,000 a year -- about $80,000 less than Peppers' salary.

Heiskell said she and Roberts agreed on this salary. Roberts said they never actually settled on that amount, though he continued to serve as judge. In July 2012, Roberts lost a re-election bid to Billy Mullinax. Then, he sued the county, saying they legally had to pay him as much money as his predecessor.

Last year, Superior Court Judge Larry Salmon ruled in favor of Roberts, saying the county had to pay him the $80,000 it would have paid Peppers had he remained on the bench. On Monday, the Supreme Court unanimously reversed Salmon's ruling.

Some appointed officials are legally required to make the same amount of money as the person they are replacing, Justice David Nahmias wrote in Monday's opinion. Those officials take the job for the full duration of their predecessors' terms.

But Roberts was not that type of appointed official, Nahmias wrote. He was more like a temporary replacement, an outsider who the governor put on the bench to make sure criminal defendants got their day in court.

Peppers' term was supposed to end this year. But because he stepped down in 2011, election officials moved the vote on the state court judge position to 2012. So when Roberts took over in September 2011, he was only guaranteed a 15-month term. That's why he didn't earn Peppers' full salary.

"Roberts did not become the incumbent serving Judge Peppers' term of office," Nahmias wrote. "He served his own 15-month-long term."

But the case is not over. The Supreme Court sent it back to the local court to settle another issue: reimbursement. When Roberts filed his lawsuit, the county filed its own.

Roberts claimed the county didn't pay him enough money, and the county claimed Roberts took too much money.

A state court judge in Walker County is only legally owed $60,000 a year. If Roberts never agreed to Heiskell's $100,000 offer -- as he later said -- the county's lawyers argued that he never deserved even that amount. He should have only received $60,000, and now he has to pay the county whatever extra money it gave him.

Because he was on the bench for 15 months, Roberts would have to give the county $50,000.

The Supreme Court did not rule that Roberts actually owed the county this money. The justices merely said that the county can argue for this money in a lower court, where a different judge would make the call.

Lawyers for the county said they were pleased with the Supreme Court's decision.

"It will be a positive for local governments, particularly counties, and for the future well being of the judicial branch of government at all levels of the state and local bench and bar," County Attorney Don Oliver wrote in an email.

Monday's ruling marks another chapter in a dispute between Roberts and the county. The bickering began in August 2012. Three days after losing his election, Roberts dismissed 65 traffic cases in which defendants had already admitted they were guilty.

"Being a former prosecutor yourself for many years," attorney David Cunningham asked Roberts during a March 2013 deposition, "what would your reaction have been if you were a prosecutor in those cases?"

"I guess it would depend on the context," Roberts replied.

On Monday, Roberts said he respected the Supreme Court's ruling: "They take any decision they make seriously."

Contact Staff Writer Tyler Jett at tjett@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6476.

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