Chief Justice Stuart Rabner told a N.J. commission charged with reviewing state officials’ salaries Wednesday that state trial judges should be paid the same as their federal counterparts and receive annual cost-of-living increases.
At a public hearing, Rabner told the Public Officers Salary Review Commission, which is to make a report to Gov. Jon Corzine by Dec. 1, that New Jersey judicial salaries have been stagnant for too long and continue to slip behind other states and the federal bench,.
Rabner requested that Superior Court and Trial Court judges’ salaries be raised to $165,000 � the salary paid to federal district judges � and that assignment and appellate judges and Supreme Court justices receive proportional increases.
The suggested raise would be a 10.75 percent increase over the $149,000 salary trial judges will start receiving in January � which was a 5.67 percent hike over the $141,000 they had been paid since 2000.
He also asked for an automatic cost-of-living increase, similar to that which Congress has provided for federal judges.
Rabner amplified on a report submitted last month in which he asked the commission to recommend across-the-board raises for all state judges, as it had in 2003 in the face of a stark disparity between state trial judges’ salaries and those of federal district judges.
Despite that recommendation, no legislative action was taken until this year, when Chief Justice James Zazzali lobbied successfully for a three-year gradual increase. The first phase, provided by the 2007 budget act, calls for hiking salaries to $149,000 for Superior Court and Tax Court judges; $155,075 for assignment judges; $167,492 for Appellate Division judges; $167,493 for associate justices; and $173,569 for the chief justice.
But Rabner said that even with their $8,000 raise this year, New Jersey trial judges only improved from 39th place to 37th place in comparison with other states’ salaries once their wages are adjusted for cost of living. “One of our critical problems is that salaries have not kept pace with inflation,” he said.
Rabner said it is increasingly difficult to attract and retain quality candidates. “We want to get the best and brightest and retain them,” he said, but something is “very, very wrong” when a judge’s law clerk can move to the private sector just one year after law school graduation and earn more than the judge.
He said that many candidates give up lucrative careers in private practice to take judgeships and that more and more judges are leaving the bench early for economic reasons. Since 2002, he said, 64 percent of the 140 judges leaving the bench did so prior to mandatory retirement age.
The commission was receptive to Rabner’s suggestions and seemed inclined to recommend them to the governor.