August 19, 2017 10:28:55 PM
Mississippi 16th Circuit judges are seeking a pay increase for their court reporters.
Last week, Judges Lee Howard and Jim Kitchens went before the Lowndes County Board of Supervisors to petition support for the raises, which would increase court reporters' annual pay from $52,900 to as much as $64,000.
The pay increase would represent the third tier in a three-tiered series of pay raises that began in 2015, after that pay schedule received state legislative approval. The 16th Circuit's counties approved the first step in 2015, but did not approve the second in 2016. The pay increase, if a majority of the circuit's four counties approve it, would raise the pay ceiling to $64,000, including benefits, for tier 3 court reporters.
Court reporters transcribe court proceedings such as hearings, trials and depositions, and produce official transcripts.
Howard said the state implemented the raise program because it's facing a potential "crisis" situation in attracting and retaining court reporters after Ole Miss shuttered its court reporter curriculum in 2002. He said no other college in the state maintains a court reporter training program.
"It's a problem throughout the state, not just here," Howard said. "We are lacking good, qualified court reporters in the state, and everybody's doing what they can to keep the court reporters they have."
Howard said court reporter pay is split among the circuit's counties, based on the number of court days each county has. Lowndes County would bear the most cost, at 37 percent of the court reporters' pay. Clay and Oktibbeha counties are responsible for 24 percent each, while Noxubee County pays 15 percent.
For the three court reporters combined, Lowndes County would have to pay about $12,000 per year.
The pay raises, if approved, would only apply to tier 3 court reporters. Howard said each of the circuit court's three court reporters is considered a tier 3 reporter.
Kitchens noted, however, the maximum salary wouldn't apply to newer, less experienced hires.
"It's no different than assistant (district attorneys)," Kitchens said. "If (16th Circuit District Attorney Scott Colom) hires someone right out of law school, they're not going to make the same as, say Scott Rogilio, who's been an assistant for 20 years."
Kitchens said it can be hard to find a qualified replacement for an experienced court reporter, even temporarily.
"I tried a capital murder case in Marshall County a number of months ago," Kitchens said. "It was while ... my court reporter was out on medical leave. I just about had to continue the case, and that case is several years old. ... It's not easy -- I've had to cancel days.
"You can't work without a judge and you can't work without a court reporter," he added. "The rest, you can kind of do without. But without that court reporter, things aren't getting done."
Board President Harry Sanders said he's not necessarily opposed to the raises but expressed doubt that Lowndes County, it approves them, will approve the full amount. Sanders said it's "premature" to say what the county will do, and officials will consider the issue as the county's Fiscal Year 2018 budget takes shape.
He also questioned whether the raises would solve the root of the struggle to keep court reporters.
"Because Ole Miss closed their school up there, they're not producing any more and they're having a hard time finding court reporters," Sanders said. "I don't think giving a $12,000 a year raise, which I think is a little steep, is going to solve the problem. The solution needs to be that (Mississippi University for Women) or EMCC, Mississippi State or somebody needs to start producing more court reporters so there won't be such a shortage."
Oktibbeha County Board of Supervisors President Orlando Trainer said his board has tentatively agreed to the raises.
"It was obvious to us that it was well-deserved," Trainer said. "We think we need to give them that increase in order to keep the courts functional so the judges can do their duties and people can render and receive justice ... and have things done in a manner that's pleasing. Also it would be in the best interest of the county to have competent people in those positions."
Clay County Board of Supervisors President R.B. Davis said he expected the judges will go before his board on Thursday. He declined to comment further until after the board could discuss the matter.
The Dispatch could not reach a Noxubee County supervisor for comment.
Alex Holloway was formerly a reporter with The Dispatch.
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