County's losing battle aimed at wrong target

Beaufort County lost its ill-advised challenge to state law regarding pay for magistrates.

Now it needs to make the magistrates whole and take its argument where it belonged in the first place -- to the state legislature.

State law gave the county no wiggle room. Magistrates are to get a pay increase when a county's population hits 150,000, and it is to be effective on the date that new census figures become official.

It's a shame it took court action by the county's magistrates to recoup back pay the county owes them. Circuit Judge Carmen Mullen ruled April 26 that the county owes the magistrates more than three months retroactive pay, totaling about $20,000.

The dispute should never have come to that.

State law and the state chief justice make it clear that neither the counties nor the judges have any discretion on the topic.

Two state attorney general opinions -- one in 1990 and one last June -- make it clear that judges' salaries must be adjusted when new census figures become official.

The opinions cite case law, which indicates that Beaufort County had no business challenging a long-settled issue.

According to the magistrates, the county also received warning from the S.C. Association of Counties, which told all county councils to get ready to make adjustments to judicial salaries if need be, based on the new census figures that became official March 22, 2011.

Beaufort County opted instead to make the magistrates' salary increase effective with its new fiscal year on July 1, 2011.

A judge told County Council it was wrong, and the county administration has now advised the council not to appeal the judge's ruling but to oppose paying legal fees for the winning side.

Even though the county lost, it can still argue for a more predictable date for the pay increases to take effect. It would be logical to make the change at the outset of the subsequent fiscal year. That would put in place a date certain, rather than the floating date of the Census Bureau's official release of population figures to the state.

If Beaufort County wants to change that situation, however, it must convince the legislature to rewrite the law. Until then, it should try using a dose or two of common sense to stay out of court.