CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Legislators heard the case for providing pay raises for West Virginia judges today but didn’t give much indication that such raises are likely.
Up against another challenging budget and the demands of other spending possibilities such as pay raises for corrections officers, providing additional money for judicial raises could be tough, lawmakers said.
“They’re certainly reluctant but I think they’re willing to consider it,” said House Majority Leader Daryl Cowles, who also serves as chairman of the Government Accountability, Transparency and Efficiency Committee.
During legislative interim meetings on Monday, the committee heard a summary of the recommendations by the Judicial Compensation Commission, which worked for several months to provide guidance about judicial salaries after being formed by an act of the Legislature.
Under the recommendations, 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 pay raises.
MORE: Read the Judicial Compensation Commission Report.
By 2021, Supreme Court justices would make $153,779.98, circuit judges would make $142,472.63, family court judges would make $108,889.80 and magistrates would make $65,017.27.
“Our role was to provide a market analysis to the House of Delegates,” said Greg Bowman, the West Virginia University law school dean who served as chairman of the Judicial Compensation Commission. “It was not to tell the Legislature what to do.”
Bowman didn’t advocate for payraises one way or another on Monday, merely outlining the commission’s role and findings.
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.
The commission had particular criteria it was supposed to follow.
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.
“Clearly the report was well-done, well-researched — but it’s tight right now and it’s tough to do pay raises,” Cowles, R-Morgan, said after Monday’s presentation. “If anything comes out of the report, I think it’s that family court judges are a little off the pace when compared to the others.”
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.
Senator Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, asked the most questions during Monday’s presentation. Among Palumbo’s questions was whether the compensation commission considered the controversy over Supreme Court spending on office renovations.
“Of course we talked about it, but we also expressly decided not to consider it,” Bowman responded, noting again that the commission’s scope was defined as more of a market analysis for judicial compensation.
Afterwards, Palumbo agreed that passing pay raises for judges seems a tall order this year.
“I think there’s a chance. I don’t know how great the chance is,” Palumbo said after the presentation. “One thing we didn’t hear is what the price tag is.
“There’s a lot more interest in probably providing salary increases for correctional officers. If you had to pick between the two I’m sure that’s the way most people would go. Is there enough money to do both? I really don’t know. Until we see what the full financial picture looks like for the ’19 budget, it’s going to be hard to make a real strong interpretation on something like this.”