Judicial Salaries Stagnate in Much of the Country

 

The pay of state judges increased by less than one percent nationally from 2010 to 2011, according to the latest data from the National Center for State Courts. The NCSC says judicial salaries have increased less than three percent overall since 2008, and that some of the least attractive salaries are in states with the highest cost of living.

While judges' salaries have generally kept up with the modest rates of inflation in recent years, they continue to lag behind those of their peers in the private sector of the legal profession. It adds up to a troubling situation, says Greg Hurley of NCSC. "While you'll always get enough people that want to sit on the bench," Hurley says, "you need to have a big enough pool… a good bench will have judges from all practice backgrounds-we want big firm players too, not just people who can afford to take the lower salary."

Salaries for general state trial court judges range from $178,835 per year in Illinois to $104,170 per year in Mississippi. Surprisingly, some of the poorer states, such as Tennessee and Arkansas, rank in the top 10 for judicial pay when amounts are adjusted for the cost of living. New York and Massachusetts, much more affluent states in general terms, rank in the bottom 10 in these rankings.

Judicial pay is an especially divisive issue in New Jersey, where Governor Chris Christie squared off against the state judiciary after many of its members balked at new state requirements that they contribute more of their salaries to their pension accounts. Under the state's constitution , judges' salaries cannot be decreased during their tenure on the bench. New Jersey's judges argue that requiring higher pension contributions from judges amounts to an illegal salary reduction.

Hudson County Superior Court Judge Paul DePascale, a state appointee, filed suit against New Jersey and Governor Christie this summer. Christie was furious when Superior Court Assignment Judge Linda Feinberg ruled in favor of DePascale, and called the judges "unelected, unresponsive public servants" and the "exalted elite," according to the New Jersey Star Ledger .

Samuel D. Thompson, a Republican member of the State Assembly, introduced a constitutional amendment last week to eliminate the provision that judicial pay cannot be diminished during a judge's term. Democratic legislative leaders told the Star Legder they would not consider supporting the amendment, which would require a three-fifths vote in both houses and also a simple majority of the popular vote in the next election.

Meanwhile, DePascale's suit was fast-tracked to the State Supreme Court this fall after Feinberg's ruling. The court will hear the case sometime next year.

In neighboring New York, which ranks 46 th in the nation in judges' pay compared to state cost of living, a commission was formed earlier this year to address the judicial pay issue. While the state is struggling financially, the commission recommended in a report issued to the legislature in August that judges should earn what amounts to a five percent raise over a three-year period.

In Mississippi, which ranks 40 th in judicial salaries when adjusted for the cost of living, judges are attempting to build support in the legislature for graduated pay increases funded through higher court fees, according to the Mississippi Sun Herald.

Hurley says that while states want to maintain a high-quality judicial bench, they have not been able to overcome fiscal realities. "In the grander scheme of things," he says, "the states can't pay the raises. The cost of living has gone up a little bit, but the salaries have not increased. It's a tough situation." 

 
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