Daily Progress, Jacksonville, TX

December 24, 2013

Interim court-at-law judge refuses extra $23K

Ben Tinsley
Jacksonville Daily Progress

RUSK — Kelley Peacock, the newly-appointed interim Cherokee County Court-At-Law Judge, said Friday she has declined to accept a $23,568 supplement to her new salary — payment for work as a mental illness judge and court master at Rusk State Hospital — because she doesn't believe it is ethical to accept the money.

She said in her former position as county attorney she always opposed the supplement being paid to former County Court-At-Law Judge Craig Fletcher because she didn't believe he performed all the work involved in overseeing matters at the Rusk hospital.

"I actually spoke to Fletcher at the time and told him, 'There are a lot more people than you doing this work,'" she said.

Fletcher has not responded to numerous requests for comment about the circumstances behind his unexpected resignation.

When Peacock was appointed to replace Fletcher on Dec. 9, she said she still felt wrong about accepting the money.

"My feelings haven't changed on this, even after I became the judge," she said. "This was a personal decision for me."

Cherokee County Auditor L. H. Crockett said Fletcher spent quite some time working as court master or mental illness judge at the hospital.

"He would go to the state hospital twice a week," Crockett said. "He did a lot of work out there."

Fletcher saw numerous patients, some Cherokee County residents and others from different counties. There were charges for the out-of-county residents who went before the judge that went to both Fletcher and the attorneys representing the patients, the county auditor said.

"We would bill those counties," Crockett said. " … It would average about $2,000 a month for Fletcher, $23,000-plus a year for doing that work out there."

The judge supplement payment issue has not gone before the commissioners court for approval because no authorization is necessary for a county official to refuse a salary, officials said.

As county attorney, Peacock received $116,872, which includes a $46,872 salary plus a state of Texas annual salary supplement of $70,000, according to Crockett. Minus the aforementioned $23,568, she will be paid $152,784 annually as county court-at-law judge, the county auditor said.

Precinct 3 Cherokee County Commissioner Katherine W. Pinotti concurred that the commissioners court had already been pondering lowering that additional $23,568 anyway to bring the county court at law position more in line with state standards.

"We talked about it during budget season last year because the the county court-at-law judge's salary has to be $1,000 less than that of district judge's, and the district judges just received a raise," Pinotti said. "That extra money is becoming unnecessary to subsidize the county court-at-law's salary to do the work out at Rusk State Hospital."

Peacock said her salary is currently $900 less than district court judges.

Precinct 2 Cherokee County Commissioner Steven Norton said he wasn't entirely sure of the details yet, but changing the supplement amount was also his understanding of the situation.

"Yes, as far as I know there is going to be a change in the money," he said.