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The judicial pay raise bill that the Texas Legislature passed earlier this month is expected to bump up the salaries of some county court-at-law judges, but others who serve on statutory county court benches won’t see increases. Gov. Rick Perry has until Sept. 8 to decide whether to sign H.B. 11, veto it or allow it to become law without his signature, says Kathy Walt, the governor’s press secretary. When questioned about the bill at an Aug. 24 news conference, Perry declined to say what he is going to do. If it becomes law, H.B. 11 would boost appellate judges’ salaries beginning Dec. 1. It also would increase state pay for a district judge from $101,000 to $125,000 a year. The salaries of most court-at-law judges are linked to the district judges’ pay. Whether a court-at-law judge would — or would not — benefit from H.B. 11 depends on which state statute governs compensation for that judge’s court, says Bob Wessels, court manager of the Harris County courts-at-law. Under Texas Government Code 25.0005(a), a court-at-law judge’s pay is capped at $1,000 less than the total annual salary for a district judge in the county on Aug. 31, 1999. A county can opt out of that salary requirement if it agrees under 25.0005(e) to collect additional civil and criminal court fees authorized under Government Code 51.792 and pays each court-at-law judge at least $28,000 of the $35,000 in fee revenue per court that the state returns to participating counties each year. But other court-specific statutes govern the compensation for some court-at-law judges and will determine how much those judges might benefit from H.B. 11. Wessels cites, as an example, Government Code 25.0222(f), which provides that Brazoria County must pay its county court-at-law judge “annual compensation in an amount that is not less than the amount that is $1,000 less than the annual salary paid to the district judges of the county from all sources.” That statute doesn’t include the 1999 cap. A very different statute governs the compensation for a court-at-law judge in Hopkins County. Under 25.1142(d), a Hopkins County court-at-law judge’s salary is limited to no more than 80 percent of the salary paid to a district judge in that county. Judge Mark Atkinson, president of the Texas Association of County Court-at-Law Judges, estimates that approximately 60 percent of the 211 judges sitting on statutory county court benches will receive some benefit from H.B. 11 if it becomes law. The rest won’t receive a pay raise unless their county commissioners court grants an increase, says Atkinson, judge of Harris County Criminal Court-at-Law No. 13. “A lot of them will get raises that aren’t mandated to get raises; some of them just won’t,” Atkinson says of the court-at-law judges. Those judges who aren’t expecting pay raises are frustrated. “All of the judges need a pay raise; we just kind of got left out,” says Penny Roberts, judge of Tom Green County Court-at-Law No. 2 in San Angelo, Texas. “I think it needs to be uniform,” says Gary Harger, judge of the Nolan County Court-at-Law in Sweetwater, Texas. Based on a survey he conducted of court-at-law judges, Harger says the judges’ salaries range from as high as $131,000 to as low as $77,000. Harger says his salary for fiscal year 2005 is $97,570, and enactment of H.B. 11 won’t give him an increase. Court-at-law judges interviewed by Texas Lawyer say they are particularly frustrated, because the civil and criminal court fee increases that will pay for the salary increases under H.B. 11 also apply to their courts. “It’s hard to believe they’re generating fees from our courts, and yet we weren’t intended to be in [the bill],” Harger says. Atkinson says the state should help pay for salary increases for the county-funded court-at-law judges, since the creation of those courts has reduced the need for the Legislature to create more state-funded district courts. “I think it’s a very legitimate position that the state should be helping these county courts out with pay,” he says. State Sen. Robert Duncan, Senate sponsor of H.B. 11, says a big concern in passing the bill was to avoid creating an unfunded mandate for counties. But Duncan, a Republican and partner in Lubbock’s Crenshaw, Dupree & Milam, says the fact that some counties will have to increase the salaries of their court-at-law judges is due to the various statutes that those counties’ state representatives and senators pushed through the Legislature in the past to create the courts. “It’s not because of anything this Legislature did,” Duncan says. The court-at-law judges say it’s time for the Legislature to take a hard look at the problems in their courts. Duncan and state Rep. Will Hartnett, R-Dallas, author of H.B. 11, agree. Duncan says lawmakers should look at the compensation and jurisdictional differences in the courts at law. Hartnett, a partner in the Hartnett Law Firm, says he will make a recommendation to House Speaker Tom Craddick that those courts be the topic of an interim study. Notes Duncan, “The problem with our county courts is we have allowed uniformity to go awry.”

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