You’ve got to hand it to Connecticut Chief Justice Chase Rogers. She has done her best on behalf of the state’s judges to get their salaries increased. She’s been talking about it and advocating for pay equity for several years. She has collected the data and voiced all of the arguments. She has appeared wherever and whenever before whatever committee of state bureaucrats and legislators and made the case. All that time expended on top of her many other duties. So why are we still talking about this? It is the debate that never ends.
The base salary for a Superior Court judge is $146,780. That figure is an insult. Rogers would like to see that raised, incrementally over the next five years, to $191,890 in the year 2017. A perfectly reasonable stance. The members of the newly formed Judicial Compensation Review Board met and will meet again. They first heard from Rogers, who endured a cross-examination of sorts from those members skeptical of her reasoning, an undesirable but politically mandated spectacle.
It is true, as the chief justice noted, that the state’s judges have not had a pay increase in five years, and adjusted for cost of living, their salaries rank them 45th nationally. Connecticut is a high-tax state, and more expensive to live in for a host of other reasons. This pay lag, it is suggested, makes it harder to attract top-notch lawyers to the bench. But that begs the question. It assumes that the governor and legislators recruit or make their picks on that basis.
On this count, the record does not aid the argument. Rogers’ market-based model — one actually used by the businessmen on the review board to challenge her position — is simply not the reality in a liberal, Democrat-heavy state where identity politics has taken such root that notions of merit-based judicial selection border on the comical.
Examples abound but consider one of the most striking — Judge Curtissa Cofield. Driving as drunk as one can get without lapsing into coma, Cofield smashed into a state police cruiser, nearly killed a trooper, and later, during her booking, hurled racist invective at a black trooper, including the ‘N’ word and other foul-mouthed abuses. She was retained on the bench.
At the same time, a truly good judge was hounded off the bench by the state’s liberal establishment for making a perfectly rational comment about illegal aliens. So let’s stop pretending that those who run the state are truly interested in the “top notch.”
As to the economic argument, consider new Superior Court Judge Maureen Murphy, whose recent appointment to the bench led the Connecticut Bar Association Young Lawyers Section to celebrate Murphy with a “diversity” award. Murphy’s practice niche was gay rights advocacy; she had a role as one of the counsel behind the state Supreme Court’s legislation of gay marriage from the bench (in Kerrigan v. Commissioner of Public Health). Her appointment satisfied the demographic diversity demands. It made the gay community very happy.
Now, before anybody sends me any e-mails, I’ll add: 1) I know Maureen Murphy. 2) I like “Mo.” 3) She’s smart. 4) She’s highly ethical. 5) I think she’ll be a good and conscientious judge. My point rather is, did the crummy salary dampen Murphy’s drive for the job? Heck no. She’s been trying to get it for 10 years.
Who is going to seriously argue that, but for the crummy salary, we would be getting a better mind on the bench than Maureen Murphy?
The legislature can drop the base annual salary for new judges to $100,000, and you will still get more applicants than vacancies. Some will be wealthy individuals who don’t care about the salary. Some will be true scholars who believe they can really contribute something to the law. Others will be lifelong misfits who see having a black robe and “all rise” for them as a salve for whatever made them a misfit or unpopular in high school.
Despite all the talk about getting the “top notch,” we know that other factors have governed appointments for decades. In some cases, a mediocre lawyer writes (or had his/her spouse write) enough checks to political campaign coffers. In other cases, someone shrewdly plays the diversity card and gets their special interest demography groups to pressure legislators. When the governor openly promises to appoint so many members of this or that group, one cannot seriously deny that “top notch” gives way to that.
On all counts, the chief justice is up against economic and political factors beyond her control. Judges do not belong to a union. Even if they did, there are too few of them to interest any politician. The big state employee unions can fill legislators’ and governors’ campaign coffers with cash, and they will send an army of volunteers to get out the vote for them as long as they get the raises and contract perks they demand. In consequence of this corrupt arrangement, many in the state civil service make more than a judge does, and their jobs do not even require a college degree, let alone top notch intellects. Judges have no such leverage, and they pay an economic price for that.
The case for raising judicial salaries rests more on moral and equitable considerations. It is a matter of simple fairness. Their salaries do not match their responsibilities, the difficulty and high-level nature of their work, or even account for the schooling and years of financial sacrifice that was required of them to become lawyers. They are underpaid, plain and simple, and that is because, unlike other groups, they have nothing to offer legislators in exchange for being treated justly. That is politics. •