Many Texas judges and elected prosecutors may see a 12 percent salary increase, after the 83rd Legislature appropriated $17.38 million per fiscal year for judicial raises.
The funds would cover raises and increases in retirement benefits for judges and others whose compensation is statutorily "linked to the salary" of district judges, according to Senate Bill 1. That includes Texas Supreme Court justices, Court of Criminal Appeals judges, district judges, county court-at-law judges, and most elected district and county attorneys. Texas law also links legislators’ pensions to district judges’ salaries.
The Legislature sent SB 1 to the comptroller on May 28. On June 6, it headed to Governor Rick Perry, who has until June 16 to veto, sign or allow SB 1 to pass into law without his signature. He can strike items from the budget before taking action.
SB 1 author Senator Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, says he still thinks judges are "underpaid" even with the 12 percent increase, but, "This was the most we were able to accomplish this time."
"There’s always more wants and needs than there is money. We do the very best we can to address those things each session. It would be my hope we could give more regular pay raises to the judges and the other state employees, then it wouldn’t be so costly to do it," says Williams, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.
He notes that the judiciary’s budget also includes funds to increase pay for court clerks and briefing attorneys.
Jeff Brown, a justice of the 14th Court of Appeals in Houston, says "every penny" of the potential raise would pay for his daughter’s college tuition and books. Although he and his wife saved money for their three kids’ educations, "I’m sure we had not saved nearly enough," Brown explains.
"We had even looked at a home equity loan to help pay for it," says Brown. "It wasn’t like the Browns were going to be in the poor house or anything, but we were going to have to scrimp and pinch pennies more than we are now."
David Slayton, administrative director of the Texas Office of Court Administration, says the state pays the entire salary of high court jurists, while district judges and intermediate appellate court justices also get county supplements.
Under the bill, Slayton says, Supreme Court justices and CCA judges would get $168,000, while the chief justice and presiding judge would get $170,500.
Intermediate court of appeals justices would get $154,000 from the state, plus county supplements, with their maximum pay set at $163,000. The chief justices of the courts of appeals get paid $2,500 more than associate justices.
District judges would get $140,000 from the state, plus county supplements, with a $158,000 maximum.
Pat Mizell, a member of the Judicial Compensation Commission, which recommended a raise of more than 21 percent, says commission members are "thrilled" that the Legislature took action this session. The commission also recommended raises in 2009 and 2011, but the recession sank that effort, he says.
"I think this last session was the first session where there was a feeling of rebound and recovery and sufficient funds to fund something like a pay raise for the judiciary," says Mizell, a partner in Vinson & Elkins in Houston.
He adds, "I think it puts the state on firm footing relative to other major states in the country."
Slayton says the raise "will help address recruitment and retention of the highest-caliber judges in the state."
He says the Senate’s version of SB 1 proposed increasing salaries by 21.5 percent, following the commission’s recommendation, but the House proposed 10 percent. A conference committee of House and Senate members settled on 12 percent.
"The discussion was, ‘Perhaps it needs to be addressed more frequently,’" Slayton recalls.
Shannon Edmonds, staff attorney for governmental relations with the Texas District & County Attorneys Association, explains that elected prosecutors also haven’t gotten a raise from the state since 2005.
He explains that elected district attorneys covered by the Professional Prosecutors Act and elected county attorneys who prosecute felonies will receive the same raise as district judges. They’re also eligible for county supplements. Other county attorneys get paid a percentage of a district judge’s salary, so they also will see varying increases.
Edmonds notes, "It would have been nicer if they stuck to the original recommendation of 21 percent, but I think our folks are happy to get whatever they can."