Are Connecticut’s judges stoic soldiers, constantly delivering more with less? Or are they demoralized, envious of the wage increases other state employees enjoy, and itching to switch to more lucrative private sector dispute resolution work?

Both of those images were served up at the second meeting of the new Judicial Compensation Review Board by the star witness, Supreme Court Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers, whose request for pay raises for judges provoked some tough questioning.

“One thing that everyone should be able to agree on,” said Rogers, “is that we want the largest pool of the best and the brightest attorneys from which to choose our judges.” She reported that she had heard, anecdotally, that “qualified attorneys who have considered or have been offered judgeships have declined the opportunity, indicating the compensation is just too low relative to private practice.”

At the Oct. 25 meeting, Rogers defended a proposed 11 percent pay “bump” as she called it, to start next July, to make up for pay increases that averaged 1.65 per cent over the past 10 years. Other state workers averaged a 3.5 percent raises over that decade.

The 11 percent increase would be followed by three years of 5.5 percent pay hikes under Rogers’ plan. Superior Court judges’ salaries would rise from the current $146,780 to more than $190,000 by the fourth year. Other judges’ pay would increase accordingly.

One of the review board members from the private sector is Pitney Bowes human resources chief Johnna G. Torsone. She questioned whether a lawyer who had the opportunity to become a judge would really spurn the combination of prestige, pension and medical benefits that are currently offered. She also asked whether raising pay would increase the stability of the bench, given that higher pay would lead to higher pensions which could also lead to early retirements.

And she took issue with Rogers’ assertion that judicial pay was lagging that far behind the private sector. “Since 2007, certainly in the private sector, given the economics that we were experiencing, a lot of employees saw either a decrease, [salaries] staying flat, or low raises,” she told Rogers.

Rogers, formerly a partner at Stamford’s Cummings & Lockwood, said the private legal sector has handed out merit raises in recent years. Torsone was skeptical. “I would suggest to you that the merit increases the private sector has seen over the last 10 years, [if any] have been in the range of 2.5 to 3 percent. So when I look at the proposal around 5.5 percent, that’s a question to me, going forward.”

Older Work Force

Joseph McGee, vice president of the Greater Fairfield Business Council, inspected Rogers’ figures with the eye of an employer. He also questioned whether pay increases were going to really lead to less turnover on the bench. At one point, he asked what percentage of the state’s 175 or so current judges were on the verge of being able to retire. Rogers offered a breakdown of judges’ ages and experience levels.

“So essentially, you have somewhere between 35 and 72 judges that are close to retirement age. Within five years,” McGee said. “If I’m in business and I’m looking at my work force, this is making me nervous in terms of potential change in the courts, and how we fill these positions.”

The commissioners asked for additional data on this issue.

In Rogers’ opening statement, she said low pay could be harming efforts to make the bench more diverse. She also said lawyers in the state’s largest firms were no longer applying to the Judicial Selection Commission, as they had previously.

Rogers was asked how the stagnant salaries have affected current judges. “Taking the big view of this,” she said, “I think they have been really good soldiers, and they really have worked harder with less over the last few years.

“I would not be being honest with you if I didn’t tell you that morale has been hurt by this. If they really see this year, when almost everybody else in state government is getting a significant increase, and there’s not some effort to get them back to where they were, we’re going to see more and more of our best talent leave. I believe that.”

Former New Haven state Rep. William Dyson, appointed to the 12-member commission by the chief justice, has served on the Judicial Selection Commission, which reviews applications to qualify for a judgeship. He concurred that lawyers from large law firms were not aspiring to the bench. “You were left selecting people from the small firms or people who were in [solo] practice,” he said. He continued: “Are you losing judges? And what does that mean? If someone is retirement-eligible, if I increase the pay and therefore the pension, is that going to be a positive for people to stay, or to leave?”

Timothy Fisher is a partner in the Hartford offices of McCarter & English, and his practice focuses on major construction litigation. He reinforced Rogers’ point that the bench should include some judges who have had practical experience in multi-million dollar business litigation. “I have deep concerns about keeping our Judicial Branch in Connecticut as a first class system of justice,” he said.

“I have wealthy private businesses that are clients of mine that will go to a retired judge and pay them three, four, five thousand dollars a day to sit as a [private] arbitrator in a matter, because that’s where the talent in the Judicial Branch in Connecticut is going. If we get to where the business leaders in the state think that the best justice that they can get is no longer in the courts, what does that mean about our state?”

Richard Orr, general counsel for the University of Connecticut, said that the court system is part of what a company looks at when considering whether to relocate here.

“People talk about a business-friendly climate,” he said. Taxes and the labor force are part of it. Another part is the resolution of the inevitable commercial business disputes. “If people can’t get them resolved in an efficient, economical and just way, they’re not going to want to do business in that environment,” Orr said. “It’s hard to think of judicial salaries as an economic development issue, but in my view, it’s a fair thing to do.”

The commission will meet three more times, said Fisher, before presenting its recommendations to the legislature early next year. Comments from the public can be submitted to the panel’s legislative liaison, Lee Hansen, at•