Judicial salaries are tricky matters.
On one hand, it is in the best interest of the state and its citizens to pay well enough to attract exceptional people to the positions of state Supreme Court Justice, circuit judge and family court judge. We rely on these men and women to make wise decisions about complicated matters that impact lives.
However, judges are also paid out of the public treasury that is financed by taxpayers. The state has serious budget limitations and the public is not inclined to pay more taxes (or accept fewer services) so that the people who are already among the highest paid public employees can make more money.
Currently justices make $136,000 annually; circuit judges are paid $126,000; and family court judges make $94,500. Their last raise was in 2011 and they were part of an incremental raise that was approved five years earlier.
Historically, representatives of the judiciary have had to go to the Legislature, hat in hand, lobbying for higher pay. The judges believed that was an unseemly process that sometimes put them in the middle of legislative horse trading.
The Legislature agreed to create the Judicial Compensation Commission, an independent body that would consider judges’ pay and make suggestions to the Legislature. The commission met in August for the first time and recommended a raise of 4.25 percent, but the report immediately drew criticism from several quarters.
“We did get some feedback from judges and what was pointed out was that there was information out there that had not been considered,” said WVU Law School Dean Greg Bowman, who is chairman of the five-member commission, on MetroNews Talkline Wednesday.
Specifically, the commission failed to provide comparison data on how much lawyers make in the private sector. That is one of eight points the commission is supposed to consider. Bowman and his committee are doing additional research to provide a more thorough report.
“We thought, upon reflection, that if we’re going to do the best job that we can for the Legislature, if we’re going to do a thorough review and we’re going to serve the citizens of the state the best we can that we should take another crack at this report,” he said.
Bowman makes clear there was no pressure from the judiciary to bump up the pay, only that the commission makes its recommendation based on all factors required by the statute.
The commission is not charged with considering the state’s ability to pay or the status of pay for other state workers, but clearly that is going to be on the minds of lawmakers if the new recommendation includes higher pay.
Senate President Mitch Carmichael is wary of an increase. “In this day and age, in this difficult economy, it (a 4.25 percent raise) was incredibly generous,” he said. “We have people throughout state government that desperately need pay raises.”
The private sector salary comparison should not be a key factor in whatever the commission decides. A judgeship has a critical public service component and no judge I’ve ever talked with said they were in it for the money. They should be fairly compensated, but it’s understood that lawyers in the private sector have the ability to draw a bigger check.