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Trial court judges in 17 states have received pay raises in the last six months, but on average their salaries remain on par with first-year associates at the nation’s largest law firms. And appeals court judges generally don’t fare much better. That’s the picture when comparing two recently published surveys: the National Center for State Courts’ (NCSC) semi-annual Survey of Judicial Salaries and The National Law Journal‘s 2005 survey of the nation’s 250 largest law firms. Indiana Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard, president of the Conference of Chief Justices, said those who become judges know the positions don’t carry the compensation of many law firms. But judges continue to fall further behind the compensation curve. “I think the most serious problem is that most judicial pay arrangements do not provide periodic cost-of-living adjustments,” Shepard said. Many judges leave the bench when they can no longer justify the difference between what they and their classmates make, he said. “The people I see depart are some of the most able in the corps-they’re the ones who attract the offers,” Shepard said. “They’ve stayed longer than they probably should have because of their dedication, but at some point they feel they have to take the needs of their families into consideration.” Economy a driving force Justices in courts of last resort in 15 states also received pay raises since the last survey, as did intermediate appeals court judges in 11 states. In addition, top court administrators in 10 states received pay hikes. The upward trend in salaries coincides with better economic conditions, the NCSC survey noted. Associate justice salaries in courts of last resort range from $95,493 to $182,071, with the average at $130,328 and the median $126,525. (A median income is that in the middle, meaning half the salaries were above and half below.) Intermediate appeals court salaries ranged from $101,612 to $170,694. The average in these courts was $125,745 and the median $122,085. For general-jurisdiction trial courts, the range was $88,164 to $163,850. The average was $117,328 and the median $112,777. The average annual adjustment was about 3% between 1995 and 2005. Law firm starting salaries ranged from $55,000 to $140,000 for the 233 of the law firms that disclosed them in the NLJ 250 survey. Of those, some firms listed ranges of starting salaries from $87,310 to $122,327. The average of those reporting fixed starting salaries was $99,491. The median of those reporting fixed starting salaries was $97,000. Year-end bonuses at many law firms in 2004 added $20,000 to $60,000 to first-year associates’ income.
The top 10 salaries for state high court associate justices and trial court judges. The ranking is not adjusted for costs of living differences among states.
1. California $182,071
2. Delaware $179,670
3. Illinois $173,261
4. Pennsylvania $171,800
4. District of Columbia $171,800
6. Michigan $164,610
7. New Jersey $158,500
8. Florida $155,150
9. Georgia $153,098
10. Alabama $152,027
1. Delaware $163,850
2. District of Columbia $162,100
3. Illinois $149,638
4. California $149,160
5. Pennsylvania $149,132
6. New Jersey $141,000
7. Michigan $139,919
8. New York $137,700
9. Florida $134,650
10. Virginia $132,211
Source: The National Center for State Courts.

Since the April data cutoff for the latest NCSC survey, Maine, Maryland and Texas judges have received raises. Pennsylvania judges got raises that were later rescinded-a move that is being challenged by some judges in the Keystone State. Pay hikes for Massachusetts judges are pending in the state Legislature. West Virginia’s high court and general jurisdiction judges received nearly 30% pay increases, which outpaced those in all other states. West Virginia, like 10 other states and the District of Columbia, has no intermediate appeals court. At $121,000, West Virginia’s high court now ranks No. 33, while California’s high court ranking is No. 1, with a salary of $182,071. At $116,000, West Virginia’s trial court salary now ranks No. 26, with the top rank going to Delaware, where trial judges make $163,850. In addition to actual salaries, the NCSC survey lists adjusted salaries that attempt to reflect the various costs of living in different states. For example, New York’s trial court judges rank No. 8 in actual salary, but 28th when adjusted for cost of living. District of Columbia trial court judges, who rank No. 2, drop to No. 20 when adjusted. New York judges haven’t had a raise since 1999, although the cost of living has increased more than 25% since then. The only other states that had gone longer without a raise were Indiana (1997) and Texas (1998). Indiana judges were given a raise of approximately 18% on July 1. The Texas raises, which went into effect on Dec. 1, ranged from 25% to 30%. New York Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye recently submitted the court’s overall budget request to Governor George Pataki. It includes a pay increase that would proportionally link state judicial salaries to those of federal district court judges. “It’s a matter of fundamental fairness,” said Kaye.

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