The two-year budget proposed last week by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy includes raises for the state’s judges and an overall fiscal boost for the state Judicial Branch.
Superior Court judges salaries would increase from $146,800 to $162,751 over a two-year period, at an additional cost to the state of $5.5 million. The raises would amount to 5.3 percent per year, which is the same amount proposed by a special committee appointed to investigate judicial salaries last fall.
Salaries for Appellate Court judges and Supreme Court justices would increase at the same rate.
In the meantime, the Judicial Branch budget, which currently sits at $482 million, would rise to $516 million in fiscal year 2014 and $538 million the following year. That would put spending back on par with where it was last year, when the Judicial Branch budget was $511 million.
Some of the added money would go for raises for prosecutors and public defenders.
Overall, Malloy’s budget proposal calls for the state to spend $40.8 billion over the next two years.
If approved by the legislature, the judicial pay increase would be the first for state judges in more than five years. But as the state continues to struggle with a sluggish economy, and other agencies are slated for cuts, there is bound to be opposition in the legislature.
This is "a very difficult time to ask for significant wage increases for people who are already seen as doing pretty well," said Rep. Arthur O’Neill (R-Southbury), who sits on both the legislative Judiciary and Appropriations committees.
In the past, the Judicial Branch’s budget proposal had to first pass through the state Office of Policy and Management, which could make changes before sending it to the legislature. However, under a recent law change, the proposal the legislature receives is the Judicial Branch’s original proposal.
O’Neill said the request isn’t exorbitant, but he added that many lawmakers will feel pressure to trim from anyplace possible as the state continues to deal with a fiscal crisis. "I think even though the Judicial Branch came up with a very tight number, they may not be immune to changes to their budget," O’Neill said.
He offered a hint of sympathy for courts administrators, who, he noted, have had to make do with less for several years. "Certainly if the rest of the budget were in good shape, and not subject to significant realigning, there would be a tendency to leave the Judicial Branch budget alone," he said. "But since we’re going to be running around looking for money over the next couple of months, they may be asked to come up with something else."
Other Judiciary Committee members, including the two co-chairs, Rep. Gerald Fox III and Sen. Eric Coleman, did not return calls last week seeking comment.
In recent years, the Judicial Branch has reduced spending by leaving some positions open, by cutting the budget of the Public Defender’s Office, by closing the Norwalk juvenile court facility, and by closing some courthouse law libraries, and cutting back hours at others.
This year, the Judicial Branch budget does call for one notable reduction — a cut in the criminal victim compensation fund. About $3.6 million in payments are slated to be made in the current fiscal year. That number would drop to $2.7 million by fiscal year 2015.
In contrast, prosecutors and assistant public defenders would receive 3 percent raises in each of the next two years. The increases, arrived at in collective bargaining agreements, would cost the state about $12 million more each year.
There’s also an additional $9 million budgeted next year for the state’s "raise the age" initiative, which moves most cases involving 16-year-old and 17-year-olds from the adult criminal justice system to the state’s juvenile courts. The goal is to get troubled teens into educational and vocational training programs instead of prisons.
While there’s an initial outlay for the state, Judicial Branch leaders have said that the long-term impact will be to ease crowding in adult prisons, which would save the state money.
Thomas Siconolfi, executive director of administrative services for the Judicial Branch, said court officials will present their numbers to legislators starting on Feb. 19. "There’s nothing to say people will be enamored by what we say," Siconolfi said. "I think the legislature has a very daunting task ahead of it."
The debate over judicial salaries was launched last year, when Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers requested an initial 11 percent raise, followed by 5.5 percent increases in each of the next three years. Her proposal to the Judicial Compensation Commission called for Superior Court judges to go from earning $146,780 currently to $191,890 in 2017.
Rogers noted that Connecticut judges have not had a pay increase in five years and that their current salaries, when adjusted for the state’s high cost of living, ranked them 45th nationally. She said comparatively low salaries are driving experienced judges out of the court system and making it harder to attract top-notch lawyers to the bench.
All of that was taken into consideration when the compensation review board met and made its recommendations to the legislature.
Tim Fisher, a McCarter & English partner and chair of the compensation review board, said the state’s ability to pay for the salary increases was one of many factors the board tasked with considering. With that in mind, he said, the proposed salary increases for judges represent a very small percentage of the judicial budget.
Even if the raises are approved, he said, judicial salaries will make up "an even smaller percentage of the General Fund than judge’s salaries represented 10 years ago."
"Many, if not most, state employees are receiving raises and no one presented an argument to our commission that judges are less deserving of raises than other state employees," Fisher said. "Especially considering how little judges have received by way of raises over the last 10 years." •