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The Texas Legislature, which twice dashed judges’ hopes for pay raises earlier this year, gave members of the judiciary something to smile about last week. With no debate, the Senate passed H.B. 11 by a vote of 22 to 6 late on Aug. 9 and sent it to Gov. Rick Perry for signing. The House approved the bill in July. “It’s a grand day,” says Linda Thomas, chief justice of the 5th Court of Appeals in Dallas, who worked for passage of the pay raise. “I think that this is a tremendous step forward in demonstrating that the Legislature wants to be able to recruit and retain qualified judges,” Thomas says. “This is going to help many judges decide that they can afford to stay in the judiciary.” Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson is one of the judges who says he’ll serve as long as he can afford to stay on the bench. Many judges have borrowed from their savings to continue serving, as their cost of living has risen, but their judicial salaries haven’t, Jefferson says. “There is no dispute that judges need a pay raise,” says state Sen. Robert Duncan, Senate sponsor of the pay raise bill. Duncan, R-Lubbock, Texas, a partner in Crenshaw, Dupree & Milam, says it has been seven years since judges received an increase in their salaries. Perry vetoed a 3 percent pay raise for judges in 2001. Perry had not signed the bill by presstime on Aug. 11, but Duncan says the governor’s staff assured him that Perry would sign it. The governor opened the second special session to the judicial compensation issue when he called the session on July 21. But Perry spokesman Robert Black says the governor is “keeping his options open” with regard to signing the bill. Jefferson notes that Texas has ranked 40th in the nation in terms of judicial pay. “There are billions of dollars in disputes that come through the courts every year and extremely important issues that affect people’s lives, like school finance,” he says. Duncan says the state wants the best legal minds in judicial positions but hasn’t been paying for that expertise. “When graduating law students make more than the best legal minds in the state, something’s wrong,” he says. “The last time I checked, people don’t want the lowest-paid surgeon to operate on their hearts, and I don’t think they want the lowest-paid lawyers making decisions about school finance and the death penalty.” Jefferson says much of the credit for passing the pay raise should go to Thomas, who helped mount a unified campaign made up of lawyers and judges who urged lawmakers to increase the salaries. “Judge Thomas was phenomenal,” Jefferson says. “She was tireless, and I think the credit for this pay raise goes to her.” The pay raise could be an early holiday present for judges. H.B. 11′s effective date is Dec. 1. COURT FEES Under the bill, judicial pay would increase from: � $101,000 to $125,000 for state district judges; � $107,000 to $137,500 for Court of Appeals justices; and � $113,000 to $150,000 for justices on the state Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals. Funding for the raises will come from a $37-per-case increase in the filing fee in the civil courts and a $4 fee to be imposed on persons convicted of criminal offenses. Judges lost their pay raise amidst legislative wrangling over indigent defense issues, shortly before the regular session ended on May 30. Controversy arose over an amendment that state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, put on the pay raise bill during the Senate debate. The amendment would have increased the fee for criminal convictions to $7, with the additional revenue going for indigent defense. Ellis threatened to filibuster a separate bill on standards for court-appointed lawyers for indigent defendants, after a House-Senate conference committee removed Ellis’amendment from the pay raise bill. State Rep. Terry Keel, R-Austin, sponsor of the indigent defense bill, sealed the fate of the pay raise bill when he threatened to raise a constitutional point of order against it. In the first special session earlier this summer, Ellis again amended the judges’salary bill to provide additional funding for indigent defense. The bill stalled when legislators were unable to reach agreement on school finance issues. “Sen. Ellis was a statesman about it and agreed not to run with [the amendment] this time,” Duncan says. “I didn’t want to kill the bill, and I’m not sure I would have had the votes to put [the amendment] on,” Ellis says. Ellis was one of the six senators who voted against H.B. 11. He says his was a protest vote to make a point that the Legislature should fund judicial pay raises out of the state’s general revenue, not increases in court fees. “I don’t think we ought to fund judicial pay raises with court fees,” Ellis says. Others who voted “no” on the bill were state Sens. Kip Averitt, R-McGregor; Gonzalo Barrientos, D-Austin; Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler; Kyle Janek, R-Houston; and Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso. Barrientos, Eltife and Shapleigh say they support judicial pay raises but voted against H.B. 11 because it also boosts state legislators’retirement benefits, which are tied to state district judges’ salaries. Eltife and Shapleigh, a principal in the Shapleigh Law Firm, say legislators should not increase their pensions when they have been unable to pass a pay raise for teachers. Barrientos says his vote should prevent legislative pensions from becoming a campaign issue that can be used against him. Casey Haney, spokesman for Janek, says the pension increase also caused Janek to cast a “no” vote. “He couldn’t see voting himself a pension increase,” Haney says. Averitt did not return a telephone call seeking comment before presstime. Duncan originally proposed de-linking the pensions from judicial salaries when he filed the pay raise bill in the regular session. At that time, he proposed to link the pensions to the governor’s salary but removed the provision after lawmakers gave the governor a pay raise. Further efforts to de-link the pensions proved futile, Duncan says. Notes Duncan, “There was no consensus about what we’d link [the pensions] to.”

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