Judges at Georgia’s Court of Appeals and superior courts earn, on average, more than their counterparts in other states, while justices at the Supreme Court of Georgia earn close to the national average for state high court jurists, according to a study by the National Center for State Courts.
Georgia justices earn $175,600 per year, which placed 25th among the 50 states and the District of Columbia. The average high court salary was $176,714.
Among the 40 states with intermediate appellate courts, Georgia ranked 15th with judges earning $174,500.
The study said the salary for Georgia’s superior court judges was the 12th highest in the country and third in the country when adjusted for cost of living. The study said superior court judges in Georgia earn $173,714 per year, or $187,394, with the adjustment.
“We’re blessed,” said Judge Stephen Kelley in Brunswick. He is president of the Council of Superior Court Judges but emphasized he was not speaking on behalf of the organization.
Despite the high ranking for Georgia’s superior court judges, Kelley noted that salaries vary widely around the state. Superior court judges received about $126,000 from the state, plus $6,000 if they work in a circuit that includes an accountability court such as one addressing drug addiction, mental illness or veterans issues’. All but a handful of circuits have accountability courts.
How much superior court salaries rise above that $132,000 figure depends on whether local governments supplement the state pay—and by how much. Kelley said judges in six of Georgia’s 49 circuits add $55,000 or more, while judges’ salaries in most circuits can go as low as $152,000.
In contrast, the lowest trial court judicial pay found in the study was in Kansas at $125,499, while first-year associates at some of Atlanta’s highest-paying law firms earn $165,000 per year.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold Melton and Appeals Court Chief Judge Stephen Dillard declined to discuss the salary figures.
In December 2016, a commission reported to the General Assembly on compensation for Georgia judges. It noted that, as a result of supplements for superior court judges, the chief justice of the Georgia high court was the 89th highest paid judge in the state.
“Certain superior court judges are the highest paid trial court judges in the country, and other superior court judges are the among the lowest paid,” the commission wrote.
“If the purpose of local supplements is to mitigate differences in the cost of living, then they should be tied to the cost of living in each circuit as measured by a recognized index,” the report said. “But they are not tied to any index, they never have been, and no one has suggested that they should be. Indeed, it is difficult to see how local supplements could be even theoretically tied to differences in the cost of living, given that the supplements are issued at different times by different people in different counties with different budgets.”
“Moreover, Supreme Court justices and Court of Appeals judges receive no supplements, even though most of them live in and around the area of the state with the highest cost of living,” the commission added. “In short, the differences in local supplements bear no relationship to the actual differences in the cost of living because in fact there is no systematic plan or formula to mitigate differences in the cost of living.”
The commission noted that federal judges receive the same pay, regardless of their location, just as state lawmakers receive the same pay, no matter where they live.