Even as the state Legislature met in special session last week to deal with the state’s budget crisis, lawmakers received a request for new expenditures.

A committee studying judicial compensation in Connecticut has proposed raises of 5.3 percent for state judges for each of the next four fiscal years. The plan would increase Superior Court judges’ annual pay from current salaries of $146,800 to $180,483 over the four-year period — an overall increase of about 23 percent. Pay for Appellate Court judges and Supreme Court justices would increase by a similar percentage, and judge trial referees, who handle many Superior Court cases, would see their per diem pay rise from $220 to $270.

The proposal from the Commission on Judicial Compensation now goes to the Legislature, whose regular session begins in January. Some lawmakers are already on record as saying that given the state’s looming budget deficit — in the hundreds of millions of dollars for this fiscal year alone — it’s the wrong time to boost the pay of some of the state’s highest-salaried employees.

“The Commission is aware of the state’s financial situation, which has changed for the worse since the Commission began its work” in October, according to a draft of the panel’s report. “We understand that to some people, the budget situation is the beginning and end of the discussion and that there should be no consideration of raises.”

The 12-member commission noted that Connecticut judges had not received raises since 2007, and stated that even before that their pay increases were not keeping up with inflation. “The judges began falling behind in 2002,” the commission stated. “For every year since that time, their salaries were less than they would have been if they had received the same raises as other state employees. Nothing in this proposal will make them whole for a decade of disparities. Those dollars are gone forever. If the Commission were to cure the historical difference in raises between judges and other state employees, the proposed increases would have been higher.”

Commission chair Tim Fisher, of McCarter & English, acknowledged there were differences of opinion among members over the size of the raises. “While some commission members thought our recommendations should be higher and there were those who said they should be lower, all of us were comfortable with the final numbers we are presenting in our report,” Fisher said.

NO LEGISLATIVE INFLUENCE

The commission members divided up into sub-groups, which researched different factors that went into deciding on a proposed increase. Those factors included: the overall economic climate in the state; the state’s ability to pay for the increases; the inflation rate; the history of raises for other state employees; comparisons with the judges in federal courts and judges in other states; compensation for other attorneys in the public and private sectors; and the state’s interest in attracting highly qualified and experienced attorneys to serve as judges.

Members then met last week to hash out their differences and to unanimously approve the recommendations. Under the statute that created the commission, the Legislature was not involved in the process. “No one from the Legislature sought to influence or had any influence on our decisions,” said Fisher, who declined to predict whether the proposal will be approved by lawmakers.

Under the commission’s analysis, the pay raise proposal would cost the state an additional $2 million in the upcoming fiscal year, with that number increasing by an additional $2 million in each of the following three years. The commission stated that Connecticut ranks 46th in the nation in judicial pay, when cost of living is factored in. It noted that inflation has increased by more than 13 percent since judges last received raises.

This past fall, state Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers asked for salary hikes of about 11 percent in the next fiscal year and then 5.5 percent annually for the following three years. That would have increased the Superior Court judges’ annual salaries to $191,890. Rogers had said there was evidence that judicial salaries are one reason that a growing number of experienced jurists have left the bench in recent years in order to take private sector legal jobs.

At the same time, Rogers said, some younger lawyers, including members of minority groups, are saying that they won’t consider a judicial appointment for financial reasons. Last week, Rogers thanked members of the judicial pay commission for their efforts.

“They spent an enormous amount of time collecting, reviewing and analyzing information as a part of their responsibilities,” Rogers said in a prepared statement. “Considering the current status of the state budget, I am pleased with the Commission’s recommendations.”

Under the proposal, Appellate Court judges would see salaries increase from $152,637 to $187,661 over the four-year period. Supreme Court justices would make $199,811 four years from now, up from a current salary of $162,520.

The two highest-paid people in the court system, after four years passed, would be the Chief Court Administrator, who would eventually make $207,512, and the Chief Justice, who would make $215,948.