While this has been a heated campaign season for all the local elected offices, some contentious accusations and statements have come from the race for chief magistrate judge, between incumbent Republican Chief Magistrate Judge Rudy Horne and Democratic challenger Phinia Aten.
Phinia Aten contends that she’s heard complaints that Judge Rudy Horne is absent from the bench due to illness and his use of associate magistrate judges instead is increasing the magistrate court budget.
At the League of Women Voters candidate forum Oct. 4, she said, “I’ve gotten complaints that’s why the budget has been increasing, because of Judge Horne’s inability to be on the bench as much as he would like to be.”
The magistrate court’s actual budget was $557,547 in 2008, $569,440 in 2009, $531,148 in 2010, $551,949 in 2011, and the budgeted funds for 2012 is $578,485.
Horne said in the last four years, he has been out sick four days — two days in 2010, two days in 2011 — plus had five days for eye surgery and oral surgery in 2011. He said his days off are not recorded by HR.
“All other times that I have been out of the office were for training, vacation, or bereavement leave when my wife’s uncle died in 2010, my wife’s aunt and my mother died in 2011. What may be confusing Phinia is that each time there is a holiday, our part-time judges have to do first appearances and bond hearings at the jail and this increases our expenditures for this line item.” First appearance hearings are required within 72 hours.
The minimum salary set by state law, O.C.G.A. 15-10-23, of part time Associate Magistrate Judges is $22.22 per hour or 90 percent of the Chief Magistrate’s salary, whichever is less.
Judge Rudy Horne contends that Aten is not a sought-after attorney, as she has described in campaign literature and her website.
Aten replied by pointing out cases covered by media outlets and listed on her website, such as that of Nakia Burgess, a single mother charged with murder following the death of her toddler in an overheated vehicle, and the cases of defendants Jeremy Dunn, Joseph Brown, Kevin Pope, Lamar Gavin, Lisa Jackson, Erica Douglas.
When asked to list cases in Rockdale County Superior or Magistrate Court with in the last two years, she cited State vs. Daniel Honzu, for the Sept. 2011 armed robbery of the Wells Fargo Bank on Dogwood Drive, because that case had already been covered in The News. She declined to name other cases, she said, to protect her clients from campaign scrutiny.
Aten said she was one of the first attorneys requested in the case of the Whitehead twins, who are accused of beating and stabbing their mother to death in 2010. Aten said one of the twins, Jasmiyah Whitehead, had sought her as a defense attorney but Aten turned down the case because she knew she would be seeking the seat for Magistrate Judge. Dwight Thomas, who chairs Aten’s campaign committee, was selected to represent Jasmiyah Whitehead instead.
Horne said it would be unlikely a successful criminal defense attorney would give up their salary for the salary of a county judge, he said.
“If you’re a good attorney you can’t afford to be a judge in your peak years,” he said. “If she was making a ton of money as a practicing attorney she wouldn’t be able to afford to leave her practice.” A successful criminal defense attorney in their peak years can make more than $1 million a year, he said.
According to payscale.com, the median salary for an attorney in Atlanta with 14 years experience is about $92,000.
The Chief Magistrate’s minimum salary is about $67,800, for a jurisdiction with a population of 75,000 to 99,999 such as Rockdale County. Horne said his current salary is a little less than $130,000.
When asked by The News what her reported income was last year was, Aten said, "I'm not going to do any of that. I'm not going to respond the letters (to the Editor)... I'm going to take it to the voters."