CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia’s Supreme Court Justices, circuit judges and magistrates are being recommended for a 5 percent pay increase while family court judges will be recommended for a 7 percent bump.
And for the three years after that, each tier of judges would be recommended for additional 2.5 percent payraises.
Those are the recommendations of a Judicial Compensation Commission set up by the Legislature to assess judicial pay.
The commission took extra time to come up with its final recommendations after initially recommending 4.25 percent across-the-board raises three months ago.
That put the commission’s second look smack dab in the middle of controversy over renovation expenses for the state Supreme Court. Commission members said they are aware of those issues but their mission was confined to assessing fair pay.
“There’s going to be the perception out there that we didn’t take that into account,” commission member Danny Martin told his fellow members.
Chairman Greg Bowman, who is dean of the West Virginia University law school, said he also has had that conversation with people. But he said the commission wasn’t set up to assess how other spending should affect its pay recommendations.
“It’s not a judicial budget committee. It’s a judicial compensation committee,” Bowman said to the other commission members.
“I think our charge is to look at, based on what data we have and our best judgment what fair compensation of judges should be.”
He added, “I’ve said it to numerous people: our job is to do a market analysis and let the legislature decide to do whatever they see fit.”
Supreme Court justices currently earn $136,000 a year; circuit judges, $126,000; family court judges, $94,500; and magistrates $57,500.
The initial raise would bring justices to $142,000, circuit judges to $132,300, and family court judges to $107,730 and magistrates to $60,375.
Median household income is $43,385 in West Virginia.
Public officials with salaries lower than supreme court justices and circuit court judges included the state attorney general, treasurer, and auditor.
The last time West Virginia judges got a pay raise was 2011, as part of incremental increases that were approved five years earlier.
These recommendations would still need to be approved, changed or declined by the Legislature.
Commission members were somewhat divided on the 2.5 percent recommended increases after the first bumps.
Martin voted against those additional phased-in increases, saying there’s no way of knowing what the state’s financial shape may be in the years to come.
“My opposition isn’t them receiving the 2.5 percent,” Martin said, referring to his concern about the bigger picture.
The other commission members voted for the additional 2.5 percent increases, saying they line up roughly at recent inflation rates. They also said the Legislature would have the latitude to back off or change any coming increases.
The Judicial Compensation Commission was formed during the 2016 legislative session, setting up the 5-member panel to study and recommend salaries for state Supreme Court justices, circuit court judges and family court judges.
The idea, advocates of the bill said, was to prevent judges themselves from having to ask legislators for raises. Some said creation of the commission would be another step toward taking politics out of the judicial branch.
“Regular, systematic increases make judicial compensation more predictable and are essential to ensure that judicial compensation remains at a level that is sufficient to attract a competent and well-qualified judiciary and helps to depoliticize the process of judicial compensation,” the commission wrote as a conclusion in its first final report.
Commission members include Bowman, Martin, Virginia King, Ed Welch and Philip B. Robertson. By statue, the commission is to include the Dean of the West Virginia University College of Law, two members appointed by the president of the Senate and two members appointed by the Speaker of the House. Appointed members serve four-year terms.
By law, the commission is supposed to consider skill and experience, the value of comparable work in other states and the federal government plus the private sector, compensation received by other state public officials, cost of living and other factors.
One factor is: “The level of overall compensation adequate to attract the most highly qualified individuals in the state, from a diversity of life and professional experiences, to serve the judiciary without unreasonable hardship and with judicial independence unaffected by financial concerns.”