Hamilton County Commission seeks new magistrate candidates

Hamilton County Commission seeks new magistrate candidates

April 26th, 2018 by Judy Walton in Local Regional News

In this June 2016 staff file photo, Chief Magistrate Randy Russell pulls a file from the back of the door in his narrow office at the Hamilton County Jail.

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

Dangling a hefty pay raise as an incentive, Hamilton County commissioners are ready to take applications for two judicial commissioner positions that will come open at the end of May.

Members of the commission's Security and Corrections Committee agreed Wednesday that rather than simply reappoint current judicial commissioners Randy Russell and Brandy Spurgin-Floyd, they would see who else in the county's pool of attorneys might be interested in the job.

Judicial commissioners, or magistrates, work at night and on weekends in the Hamilton County Jail, issuing warrants and setting bonds during hours when General Sessions Court is closed. County commissioners created the system decades ago to help ease overcrowding in the jail. Magistrates served one-year, staggered terms, so two are appointed in the spring and two in the fall.

They earn $65,000 annually and, until recently, could supplement that by practicing civil law. But Tennessee's Administrative Office of the Courts forbade outside practices last year. In February, Hamilton County commissioners voted to boost the magistrates' pay to $80,000, with $4,000 annual increases until the pay reaches $92,000. Commissioner Tim Boyd, chairman of Security and Corrections, said that would place their pay at around the same level as other judicial personnel.

In discussions last week about whether to reappoint Russell, the chief magistrate, and Spurgin-Floyd, the idea of seeking other candidates came up.

"Lots of things changed" with the AOC ruling and the pay raise, committee member Chester Bankston said Wednesday.

Committee member Greg Beck said that with lower pay and benefits, "we haven't been getting the cream of the crop." Boyd added, "The quality of the candidates hasn't been a predominant topic of conversation" in the past.

The committee agreed to begin advertising for the posts on Friday and keep applications open until May 8. They plan to interview candidates at the May 16 meeting and vote May 30.

The full commission voted Wednesday for a one-month extension of the two incumbents' terms so the positions will be covered through the application and interview process.

Committee members also agreed to reinstate requirements for a quarterly report on magistrates' hours and workloads. That used to be the practice but it fell by the wayside over time, several said.

"Previously, the chief magistrate used to make his report personally to us. I'd like for that to start again," Beck said. The other members agreed.

Boyd also suggested the committee consider changing magistrates' terms from one year to two.

When the commission set up the program magistrates had four-year appointments, but that was cut to one a decade or so ago, according to Times Free Press archives.

Contact staff writer Judy Walton at jwalton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416.

Correction: This story was updated April 26, 2018, at 10:10 a.m. to remove a garbled sentence that incorrectly said Commissioner Tim Boyd was absent Tuesday.