As it stands, any lawyer who is nominated for a state judgeship and serves on the bench for even the briefest period is eligible for a pension equal to two-thirds of his or her judicial salary. A Superior Court judge currently makes $154,559 annually, meaning a pension would pay about $103,000 a year, plus benefits.
What was once a simple fiscal fact is now a bone of contention among some state lawmakers who noted that two of the 16 lawyers recently nominated by Gov. Dannel Malloy for Superior Court posts are in their late 60s and will serve only a few years before retiring and collecting a pension that could net them a million dollars or more over the rest of their lives.
A leading Republican lawmaker said he plans to have the General Assembly address this matter before the legislative session ends Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, the ranking Senate Republican on the legislature’s Judiciary Committee, said it’s not fair to other state employees — not to mention judges who have served for decades — that a newly appointed 69-year-old judges could theoretically serve one day on the bench and qualify for a $100,000-plus pension once they hit the mandatory retirement age of 70. Other state employees do not receive a full pension unless they’ve worked for 10 years.
“This issue is not going to go away,” Kissel said, predicting that amendments will be offered in coming days that will attempt to revamp the pension rules. One idea is to create a new system that pro-rates pension payments depending on how long a judge has served.
Kissel told the Associated Press that Connecticut taxpayers struggling with stagnant wages and high fuel costs are perplexed by the state’s policy as well. “They shake their heads and go, ‘You’ve got to fix that,’” Kissel said.
Senate Minority Leader John P. McKinney, R-Fairfield, has said he would vote against any judicial nominee who will be unable to serve at least eight years on the bench. Superior Court judges are appointed to eight-year terms.
“It’s such an outrageous system that it just begs for reform,” Rep. Steven T. Mikutel, D-Griswold, was quoted as saying on the CT Mirror news website. “You change the system, I’ll vote for these judges.”
The Mirror reported that since Malloy took office in January 2011, 10 of his 38 Superior Court nominees were lawyers age 61 or older.
The issue resurfaced on Tuesday, April 29, when the Senate approved the nomination of Timothy Bates, who is 66 and a partner in the New London office of Robinson & Cole. Another 66-year-old nominee is Anthony Avallone, a Democratic National Committee member and former state senator from New Haven. Avallone was confirmed on votes of 29 to 5 in the Senate and 97 to 30 in the House.
Most lawmakers went out of their way to praise the two older nominees while at the same time finding fault with the pension system. Sen. Andrew Maynard, D-Stonington, called Bates “extraordinarily qualified” and added that Bates has told him he would happily give up the retirement benefit and that he only wants to serve the state.
Maynard called the state’s judicial pension system “regrettable” and “seemingly unfair.” He said it points to the need for broader state government pension reform. Several other lawmakers also called the system unfair, but added that the current candidates for judgeships should not be “penalized” by having their nominations rejected.
Editorial writers and newspaper columnists have also jumped on the issue. Chris Powell, managing editor of the Journal-Inquirer in Manchester, wrote in a column distributed for Thursday publication: “The governor and legislature … knew that there were qualified younger judicial candidates from whom the state would get many more years of work in exchange for those big pensions. But that mattered to only the small minority of legislators who voted against the nominees… The extravagant cost of a nominee is a factor as legitimate in evaluating his appointment as his credentials.”
A Judicial Branch spokeswoman says the branch doesn’t track the number of retired judges collecting pensions. She directed that query to the state Office of the Comptroller, which did not immediately respond to a call seeking data.
The issue seems to have captured the attention of bar members in general, several of whom have contacted the Law Tribune.
“I have no quarrel with the nominees, but I am offended when [two of them are] 66 years old and will be entitled to a full pension in excess of $100,000, plus lifetime health benefits,” and will be also able to collect per diem pay as judge trial referees, wrote Martin M. Rutchik, a Norwich attorney. “When law libraries close, when court fees are doubling, when each new judge requires additional staff, then to appoint anyone to serve for three years and then [collect] a pot of gold at the end is chutzpah.”