For the first time in decades, judges are absorbing direct pay cuts or work furloughs to help their states grapple with severe budget deficits.
In some cases, judges are having reductions imposed upon them by legislators. Others are voluntarily accepting pay cuts, even in states with constitutional limits on cutting judicial pay.
All Delaware state judges took a 2.5 percent pay cut effective on July 1 that mirrored reductions imposed on state employees, despite that state's constitutional ban on cutting judicial pay, said Delaware Supreme Court Chief Justice Myron T. Steele. It was the first time that the state's judges have been asked to take a pay cut. "I was frankly pleased and surprised," he said of the response from the bench. "We had 100 percent participation with the judges."
Effective on July 15, judges in Los Angeles County, Calif., Superior Court began taking a pay cut of about $700 per month -- the equivalent of about one day's pay -- for total savings of more than $3 million. There, too, the move was unprecedented, according to Presiding Judge Charles "Tim" McCoy. The state constitution protects judicial pay.
"I am absolutely convinced the judges, overwhelmingly and in very large numbers, are participating in this," McCoy said. "It's the right thing to do."
The Vermont Supreme Court announced that, effective July 1, all court employees, including judges, would take one furlough day each month. For judges, said Renny Perry, director of trial court operations at the Vermont court administrator's office, that translates into a pay cut of about 5 percent. Normally, he said, judicial salaries in Vermont cannot be reduced, but state law does make judges subject to furloughs.
In Idaho, another state that shields judicial pay, judges have taken two furlough days equivalent to a 2 percent pay cut, said Patti Tobias, Idaho's administrative director of the courts. The forced days off were spread out from January through June, she said.
"The Supreme Court believed it was necessary to show our solidarity with the other branches of government during these difficult times," Tobias said. The cuts ended with the past fiscal year on June 30, she said.
About half the states' constitutions ban legislators' cutting a sitting judge's salary, said Greg Hurley, an analyst for the National Center for State Courts, to prevent legislators from punishing judges who make unfavorable rulings.
JUDGES TO MICHIGAN: NO
Not everyone is on board with voluntary cuts. Michigan's judges opposed the governor's proposal this spring to cut their salaries by 10 percent, said Barry Howard, a former chief circuit judge. Howard was appointed by the State Bar of Michigan to represent judges before a state commission that advises the Legislature on compensation for elected officials. Howard argued that it was unconstitutional in Michigan to cut judicial salaries midterm and that judges haven't had a raise since 2000.
The commission agreed with that reasoning. "The judges have already taken their cut," said Howard, who is of counsel to Lipson, Neilson, Cole, Seltzer & Garin in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.
In North Carolina, Gov. Bev Perdue invited judges to take pay cuts in May as part of a flexible furlough plan for all state employees. Of the state's 395 judges, 19 declined, according to the state's Administrative Office of the Courts. Some sought alternatives, such as not filing for travel reimbursements. Others simply refused.
"I am financially unable to take that type of pay cut," said Angela Foster, a district court judge in Guilford County, N.C., and a single mother of five.
Foster, who is based in Greensboro, N.C., estimated that the cut would reduce her annual salary of $109,000 by $270 per month. She said that she recognized that the state's budget crisis was dire. Still, she said, many judges have children at home and other financial obligations.
"I don't believe they're picking on judges. They're looking at a pot of money earned by certain categories of people that could be more than what a lot of people are making," she said. "But it really depends on each individual person's perspective."
All but 30 of the 430 judges in New Jersey agreed to take furlough days on May 22 and June 29, said Winnie Comfort, spokeswoman for the New Jersey judiciary. Of those who refused, several went to work as usual; others took paid personal or vacation time.
Judges in some states had no choice, since their states lack constitutional protections against salary grab-backs. Hawaii's judges are required to take two furlough days between Aug. 1 and June 30, 2011. Gov. Linda Lingle issued an executive order to that effect for all state elected officials, including judges, and estimates that the furloughs for all parties will save $1.2 million over two years.
In Florida, the Legislature mandated a 2 percent pay reduction for most state employees and all elected officers, including judges. Later, Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed the cut as to the state employees but allowed the reduction for elected officers.
Florida's judges haven't had a raise in three years -- not even to cover cost-of-living increases, said Peter Blanc, chief judge of the 15th Judicial Circuit in Palm Beach County.
"We tried to convince the Legislature that what they were doing seemed symbolic rather than financially effective," he said. "If you look at the history here, it's somewhat frustrating. A lot of judges feel like they are not treated as a co-equal branch of government."