As a newly created committee begins meeting to discuss judicial salaries in Connecticut, the state Judicial Branch has offered up a detailed proposal that would boost annual pay for most judges by about $45,000 or more over the next four years.

In a 20-page report, Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers calls for the state’s judges and judicial magistrates to receive a pay increase of about 11.3 percent next year and 5.5 percent for each of the three following years. That would boost salaries for the state’s 162 Superior Court judges, for example, from $146,780 now to $163,416 next year and $191,890 by fiscal year 2017.

In calling for the increases, Rogers notes that state judges haven’t had a pay increase in five years, that judicial salaries have risen less than 1.65 percent annually in the past decade and that Connecticut now ranks 45th overall in judicial pay, when the state’s cost of living is factored in.

The initial 11.3 percent increase, Rogers stated in the report to the 12-member Connecticut Commission on Judicial Compensation, would bring salaries to where they would have been if judges had received cost-of-living increases, linked to inflation, over the past decade. The first year of raises would cost the state an estimated $3.8 million.

“As public officials, judges do not expect to become wealthy,” Rogers wrote. “But fairness and the need to retain highly qualified jurists require that judicial salaries maintain their value. Protecting the compensation of Connecticut’s public officials against inflation is essential to prevent genuine hardship over time, hardship that increasingly discourages recruitment and retention of talented individuals.”

Rogers’ proposal will no doubt launch a spirited debate. In recent months, some members of the legal profession have worried that below-market salaries had caused many experienced judges to step down and go into private practice. “I would guess (and this is just a guess) that more judges have left the bench in the last five years or so, than the number who left in the preceding ten to fifteen years,” Superior Court Judge Barry Stevens wrote in a letter to Law Tribune columnist Dan Krisch, who has written about the “trickling exodus” of judges.

Others have said that, given the still-struggling economy and the state’s budget woes, this is an inopportune time for judges to request a large pay increase. They note that, even with the static pay in recent years, the state has no shortage of lawyers who want to be judges.

Rep. Arthur O’Neill, R-Southbury, noted the outrage that erupted last week when it was revealed that the state Department of Higher Education had awarded raises of up to $48,000 to 21 staff members. “This is the wrong time to be asking for substantial increases in compensation,” said O’Neill, a member of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee. “Any increase is going to be difficult to sell, given the fact that we have an ongoing budget deficit [and] enormous debt from unfunded liabilities.”

Private Sector Reluctance

The Judicial Branch report, bolstered with graphs and narrative arguments, compares judges’ salary increases with employees in other branches of government and with unionized employees.

Since 2002, judges have received 5.5 percent pay increases in three years and no increases in the other seven years. If Connecticut’s trial judges had received the increases at the rate of legislative branch employees over the past 10 years, their salaries would be $182,390 by now, one chart states.

Under the Judicial Branch proposal, all judges, magistrates and the Judicial Branch’s top administrators would see the same increase on a percentage basis. The proposal, for example, calls for Appellate Court judges’ pay to rise from $160,722 this year to $178,938 in fiscal year 2014, and up to $199,547 in fiscal year 2017. Supreme Court associate justices, currently earning $162,250 a year, would see their pay reach $180,940 next year and $212,467 by 2017.

Connecticut relies on senior judges and judge trial referees to handle hundreds of cases a year. These retired judges currently receive $220 for each day they work. That number would reach $288 in 2017 under the Judicial Branch proposal.

The report contends that low salaries are suppressing the number of judicial applicants from minority backgrounds. It cites legislative testimony jointly submitted by the Connecticut Asian Pacific American Bar Association, the Connecticut Hispanic Bar Association, the George W. Crawford Black Bar Association and the South Asian Bar Association of Connecticut.

The report also says the number of judges coming from the private sector decreased by 16 percent over the past decade, and that more and more judicial appointees are being drawn from the public sector ranks of prosecutors, public defenders and other government employment. Private sector judges are another form of diversity, the Judicial Branch report noted. “These individuals bring unique experiences and a different perspective than those who have engaged in public sector lawyering,” the report stated.

Rogers noted that in the past year, five judges have left the bench to join private firms, the same number as in the previous 25 years. “This trend is unprecedented,” the report states. “Additionally, some attorneys in private practice who have been offered judgeships have declined the opportunity, indicating that the compensation is just too low relative to their private sector earnings.”

Revenues V. Salaries

So just how much do private sector attorneys earn?

The Judicial Branch report includes a segment entitled “The levels of compensation received by attorneys.” The report reprints the Connecticut Law Tribune’s revenue per lawyer rankings for private firms, taken from the newspaper’s annual Trib 25 rankings.

In 2011, revenue per lawyer for the state’s top 25 firms was between $280,469 and $689,655. But the report does not explain the relationship between lawyers’ revenue and their compensation.

Weston-based law firm consultant Peter Giuliani said the rule of thumb is that only about one-third of the revenue per lawyer totals represent profit, and not all of the profit goes to the lawyer generating the revenue. Comparing lawyer revenue and judicial salaries is, he said, “irrelevant.”

A lawyer with a $900,000 “book of business” in clients’ billable hours per year, in seeking a job at a new firm as a lateral hire, would start pay negotiations at about $300,000, Giuliani said. He added: “Lawyers in law firms get paid to do different things. They get paid to generate business, for doing legal work, and for supervising other people,” he added.

Citing a similar ratio between revenues and salaries, attorney Kenneth Laska, of Plainville’s Segal & Laska, said most practitioners would be delighted to clear a judge’s salary, not to mention receive the fringe benefits afforded to state employees. He added that some lawyers are not sure judicial pay and judicial excellence are tightly linked. “The good judges take pride in who they are, not in what they’re making.

State Rep. Gerald Fox III is co-chair of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee, which approved the new Commission on Judicial Compensation. He said he had heard about the Judicial Branch request, and noted that the commission had only met for the first time this month.

“I want to let them do their work, and not pick apart every submission,” he said. “I expect the commission is now going to go to have a series of meetings, do its due diligence, and make recommendations to the legislature in early January.” •