After years of aggressively lobbying for raises in their salaries, chief justices and court administrators in five states are backing off as unprecedented budget cuts have forced judges to accept pay freezes.

Chief justices and court administrators in Connecticut, Florida, Minnesota, Ohio and Rhode Island, most of whom had sought jumps in salaries for state judges in the past, have accepted pay freezes in recent weeks as worsening economic problems unfold in their states.

In some cases, judges have spoken out against lobbying for pay increases during a major financial crisis. Judges in other states, such as Hawaii, New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, have resisted proposed freezes, although in varying degrees.

The freezes come as raises for general jurisdiction judges have dwindled to an average of 1.9% during the first six months of 2008 from 5.2% in 2006, according to the National Center for State Courts. By law, half of all states have constitutional provisions that prohibit reducing judicial salaries.

But many fear that freezing judicial pay, on top of dwindling raises, could reduce the competitiveness of the bench and negatively affect the quality of those who are retained or recruited to serve as judges.

Static salaries, combined with inflation, mean “inevitably you’re going to see the deterioration in the quality of person who will want to apply to become a judge,” said John Greaney, director of the Macaronis Institute of Trial Advocacy at Suffolk University Law School, who in November retired from the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

Judges backing down

In Minnesota, where trial judges regularly have received annual raises, Chief Justice Eric J. Magnuson agreed to freeze judicial salaries for the upcoming biennium period.

In an e-mailed statement, Magnuson said: “Given the deteriorating economy, the judges decided that if by forgoing any raises over the next two years they could save some jobs for court staff, it was the right thing to do.”

Judges originally had planned to seek a 3% annual raise that would have been effective on Jan. 1, 2010, said John Kostouros, spokesman for Minnesota’s State Court Administrator’s Office.

Last month, Judge Barbara M. Quinn, the chief court administrator in Connecticut, told a state salary commission that she would not seek judicial raises this year. Connecticut’s judges last received a raise in 2007.

“I want to be clear that I am not here today seeking an increase in judges’ compensation,” she said in testimony to the commission. “We are fully aware of the budget crisis that the state of Connecticut faces, and the judicial branch is preparing for the possibility of a significant reduction in its budget. In this climate, I would never come before you seeking a pay raise for judges.”

In Ohio, where judges have regularly received annual raises of up to 3.5%, legislators have frozen salaries. In the past year, Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer has argued for more substantial increases, given that judges in Ohio are underpaid when compared to other states, said Chris Davey, a spokesman for the Supreme Court of Ohio.

“This is something that has been a priority for our chief justice for a long time,” Davey said. “But we have to operate within the confines of our current economic reality, as well. We recognize that.”

Florida’s 990 judges are not lobbying for pay increases as the state finishes its fourth round of budget cuts, said Lisa Goodner, the state courts administrator in Florida.

Judges recently sought significant boosts in their salaries, which start at $137,000. But the state has reduced its budget by $8 billion in the past two years, Goodner said.

“Our overall budget has been reduced so significantly that we’ve not been in a position to lobby for pay increases,” she said.

And in Rhode Island, where judges received a 3% annual raise for the past two years, no state employees, including judges, are getting raises for the year ending June 30.

“Everyone has recognized that the state is in a financial bind, and there seems to be a recognition that all state employees are going to have to experience some kind of sacrifice,” said Craig N. Berke, spokesman for the Rhode Island Administrative Office of State Courts.

Ambivalence over freezes

Judges in some states are more hesitant to accept freezes.

Last month, a commission in Washington state proposed freezing salaries of several state officials, including judges, for the next two years. Judges, who have received pay hikes every two years, had asked for a 2% increase effective on Sept. 1, 2010. Eliminating a cost of living increase “makes it more difficult to attract quality lawyers to the bench,” said Chief Justice Gerry Alexander. Still, he recognized the challenges in arguing his case this year.

“I was very subdued in the way I presented it, because we wanted to be sensitive to the financial plight of the state,” Alexander said.

In December, Hawaii Governor Linda Lingle said she would introduce legislation that would freeze judicial salaries, even though a commission two years ago recommended raises of up to 10%.

Marsha Kitagawa, spokeswoman for the Hawaii State Judiciary, said the courts had not taken a position on the governor’s proposal.

Pennsylvania judges received a 2.8% cost of living adjustment on Jan. 1, but the governor and some legislators are pressuring state officials, including judges, to give back those raises. James Koval, a spokesman for the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, said that no judges so far have done so.

In a farewell speech last November, New York Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye, who retired at age 70, continued to argue for salary increases in the midst of the state’s budget crisis. Judges in New York have not received a raise in more than a decade — a fact she called “heartbreaking, frustrating and demoralizing beyond description.” Last year, Kaye filed one of several lawsuits seeking to force legislators to grant a judicial raise.

The court’s proposed budget for this year includes a retroactive pay raise to 2005.

“It’s going to be a tough struggle,” admitted Bernice Leber, president of the New York State Bar Association and a partner in the New York office of Arent Fox, given that New York is facing a budget deficit. “That doesn’t mean you don’t try.”

Push for judicial pay hikes falters