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States across the nation that are struggling with the demoralizing impact of lagging pay for state judges are proposing the first pay hikes for their jurists in years. But the size of the pay raises varies from state to state, reflecting different strategies and budget limitations. The chief justice of Oregon, Paul De Muniz, is pushing for a 30.5% increase in judicial salaries in his state. “We need to be able to attract to the bench the best lawyers from private practice we can get, and we need to be able to retain those who go into a career of judicial service,” De Muniz said. “Right now, we’re having trouble doing both.” Judges in Georgia, New Jersey, New York and Oregon are pushing for their first raises in nearly five years. In the past year, some of the most substantial increases in recent years were approved in Alaska, Arizona, Massachusetts, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Tennessee. In some states, the raises come as salaries rise among private practice lawyers and judges in comparable states. In others, the hikes are designed to closely mirror federal judicial salaries even as U.S. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. is lobbying Congress for higher pay on the federal side. But raises aren’t the norm in most states. Last year, the majority of state judges that reported increases saw their salaries bump up an average of 2.4%, which is nearly on par with inflation and the first slowdown in rate increases since 2003. Experts who track judicial salaries said the slowdown is due to lower inflation rates last year and increasing constraints on state budgets due to federal programs such as Medicare and Social Security. Playing catchup More than half the states reported some type of salary jump in 2006, according to the National Center for State Courts. Most of those states report regular increases, often for cost-of-living adjustments. But several states hadn’t given their judges a raise or cost-of-living adjustment in years and opted last year to play catchup. They cited salaries that had not kept up with the rising compensation of lawyers in private practice and judges in other states. Judges in Massachusetts, for example, received a 15% raise last year after going without any raise or cost-of-living adjustment since 2000, when a three-year increase ended. The new salaries became effective retroactively on Jan. 1, 2006. Trial court judges now earn $129,694. “There hadn’t been a pay raise in Massachusetts of any nature, including cost of living, since one was enacted in 1998,” said James G. Collins, a circuit justice and former vice president of the Massachusetts Judges Conference. “As a result, we had fallen to 48th in the nation when adjusted for the cost of living.” In Missouri, a citizens’ commission recommended a $1,200 bonus across the board and a 4% raise that is expected to boost salaries for circuit court judges to $113,520. Missouri hasn’t granted a judicial raise in six years, which has been a “demoralizing factor with our state judges,” said Catherine Barrie, senior legislative counsel at The Missouri Bar. In appealing for raises, judges looked to salaries in other states and noted that the average salary for a private practice lawyer in Missouri is $185,000, she said. A 16-year drought Legislators in Tennessee considered the salaries of judges in other states and private practice lawyers when approving a 14% raise last year, said Sue Allison, a spokeswoman for the Administrative Office of the Courts in Tennessee. In that state, judges received the first salary adjustment, other than cost-of-living increases, in 16 years, she said. The state’s trial court judges now earn $140,000. “Everyone agreed that after 16 years, it was not unreasonable to review their salaries,” Allison said. In Arizona, the same comparisons came up when a salary commission approved a 12.5% increase in annual compensation for state judges that became effective this year. Arizona’s last raise was approved five years ago. “The issue was always, ‘If we’re not going to have higher salaries, why would qualified attorneys leave private practice?’ ” said Cari Gerchick, a spokeswoman at the Arizona Supreme Court. Judicial and business leaders in Oregon compared the salaries of its state judges to the salaries of attorneys in public service and of judges in four surrounding states as part of a new task force assembled last year to look at pay increases, said De Muniz. Judges in Oregon have not received a salary increase or cost-of-living adjustment since 2002. De Muniz said the task force has recommended that trial court judges earn $125,000. Right now, they make $95,800, the lowest salary in the country. He said the governor has included enough money in a proposed budget this year to meet those requests. The House of Representatives in Georgia passed a bill last month that would institute the first increase in base salaries for judges since 1999, said Kelly Moody, project coordinator at the Administrative Office of the Courts in Georgia. She said one reason for the increase was the growing disparity between judges and lawyers at private law firms. Judges in the state have received a cost-of-living increase every year of about 3%. But the new increase would boost the salaries of superior court judges by 10%, to $128,400. Looking at federal salaries Other states looked to federal judicial salaries as guidance for salary increases. Roberts is petitioning Congress to increase federal salaries, which he said have not kept up with inflation, resulting in several judges leaving the bench in recent years, particularly as the private sector offers much higher pay. Federal district court judges now make $165,200 a year. In New York, for example, four judges have sued the state to raise state trial court judge salaries from about $136,000 to about the same as federal judges, said Nassau County Supreme Court Justice Joseph A. DeMaro, one of the judges in the suit. The raise would be the first since 1999. “We’re seeking a significant increase to bring us up to speed with what we think we should be-to the level of the federal district judges,” he said. Meanwhile, New York Governor Eliot Spitzer has said he allocated judicial raises in a proposed budget earlier this year. Last month, New York Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye called for legislation that would allow judges and other state officials to regularly receive annual cost-of-living adjustments. She also suggested that a state commission be formed this year to recommend annual salary adjustments and that, beginning in 2011, a new commission would meet every four years to reassess those salaries. New Jersey Chief Justice James R. Zazzali has been pushing legislators in recent weeks to increase state judicial salaries for the first time in seven years so that they match, or come close to, the pay of federal judges. “Today, we are substantially behind federal salaries. They’re $165,000. Our trial judges are at $141,000,” he said. “I’m concerned about the ability to attract judges.” New Jersey’s judges last received a pay raise in 2000 that was spread out over three years. In Alaska, court administrators who sought out a substantial increase last year cited the salaries of federal district court judges. Two years earlier, Alaska’s state judges had received a 6.5% raise that boosted salaries to $116,076 due to a general state salary shift. But Alaska’s trial court judges sought and received a 31% raise on top of that. The judges now earn $152,760. “We’d fallen quite behind,” said Rhonda McLeod, manager of fiscal operations at the Administrative Office of the Courts in Alaska. In Pennsylvania, a bill has been introduced that would sever a newly established link between state and federal judicial salaries. In 2005, state legislators approved a salary hike that, for the first time, was based on a formula including federal judicial salaries. The increase boosted trial court judge’s pay from $135,293 and was the first major raise since the 1990s. The raise proved controversial, prompting legislators to repeal the law, which also included increases to their own salaries. Several judges sued to retain their raises. “The contention was that the state constitution did not permit the legislature to decrease salaries of judges and therefore the act repealing the increase, they contended, was unconstitutional,” said Art Heinz, spokesman for the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts. In September 2006, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reinstated the increase retroactively so that judges began receiving their raise on Jan. 1 of this year, he said. Most trial court judges now receive $152,115, which includes a cost-of-living increase. But the effect that federal salaries could have on future increases remains unclear. “There is some uncertainty about the implications for that,” Heinz said. Return to normalcy Most states last year raised salaries by an average of 2.4%, which is barely above inflation. Those raises, which include cost-of-living adjustments, are the first slowdown since increases began climbing after 2003. In 2005, judges received an average salary increase of 4.5%. Court administrators in Minnesota, for example, are recommending a 5% raise in judicial salaries in this year’s budget after failing to get their requested compensation in past years. Minnesota judges, like other state employees, have received a raise every year for the past decade. In 2005, a commission that reviews judicial salaries recommended a 3% raise for that year and 2006. State legislators approved 1.5%. “That’s the smallest raise they’ve gotten in the last 10 years,” said Sandy Neren, a lobbyist for the Minnesota District Judges Association and a lawyer in the St. Paul office of Minneapolis-based Messerli & Kramer. “Raises before then were quite a bit more because we were trying to catch up for years of no raises from back in the ’90s.” At $121,712, Minnesota’s trial judges earn about the same as a first-year associate at a local law firm, she said. Even lawyers in the public sector earn more. She said she was “hopeful” judges would get a raise this year, although she wasn’t sure it would be 5%. She said the state’s budget had a limited amount of money to spend. “Health care costs are eating up a huge part of almost every state’s budget,” she said. “People are trying to figure out a way to contain health care costs. That is a high priority.” Also, other costs such as education and transportation are taking preference in the state budget. Benjamin Wise, research assistant at the National Center for State Courts, which compiles the data on judicial salaries, called the recent dip a “return to normalcy. “States were recovering from adverse fiscal conditions, and so they were starting to improve judicial pay,” Wise said. He said that last year’s increase rates also could be attributed to a decline in the overall inflation rate and increased costs in state budgets associated with federal programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. Many of those programs are administrated by the states, which have been forced to absorb costs left unfunded from federal block grants. “In the near future, that will have a bigger and bigger impact on state budgets in general,” he said. “They’ll have a trickle-down effect on state budgets that’ll make it harder to raise salaries without a concerted effort.”

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