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Texas judges haven't gotten a raise since 2005, and they earn less than judges made in 1990 when considering inflation, says a recent report by the Judicial Compensation Commission.
Increasing judicial salaries for district judges, intermediate appellate justices and jurists of the two high courts by more than 21 percent is necessary to attract qualified lawyers to the bench and stop experienced jurists from leaving, says the report.
Former Texas Supreme Court Justice Dale Wainwright says financial considerations factored significantly into his decision to leave the high court in September. For a Supreme Court justice, he says, "The difference between what they are making in the public sector and what they could be making in the private sector can be several million dollars every few years."
Judges and their families make a financial sacrifice so the judge can serve, he says, and the relatively low salary shortens their tenures.
"I have the utmost respect to folks who do public service. … Anything the Legislature can do to help compensate the members of our judiciary better would only improve the bench," says Wainwright, partner in Bracewell & Giuliani in Austin.
Judicial Compensation Commission member Pat Mizell notes that judges' compensation is "extraordinarily low" compared to the pay of private-sector lawyers. For example, the salary of a district judge is much lower than a starting lawyer at his firm, Vinson & Elkins in Houston.
"It's $40- to $50,000 less than what a 25-year-old kid out of law school makes," he says, adding, "We're already in a situation where it is starting to affect the quality of the judiciary. Good judges are having a very difficult time making ends meet under the current salary structure."
The 80th Legislature created the commission, and the governor appoints members, subject to Senate consent.
The state pays the entire salary of jurists of the two high courts. Intermediate appellate justices and district court judges receive the majority of their salaries from the state, with supplemental pay from counties. The commission recommends increasing state salaries across the board by 21.1 percent to 21.5 percent.