Texas judges haven’t gotten a raise since 2005, and they earn less than judges made in 1990 when considering inflation, says a recent report by the Judicial Compensation Commission.
Increasing judicial salaries for district judges, intermediate appellate justices and jurists of the two high courts by more than 21 percent is necessary to attract qualified lawyers to the bench and stop experienced jurists from leaving, says the report.
Former Texas Supreme Court Justice Dale Wainwright says financial considerations factored significantly into his decision to leave the high court in September. For a Supreme Court justice, he says, “The difference between what they are making in the public sector and what they could be making in the private sector can be several million dollars every few years.”
Judges and their families make a financial sacrifice so the judge can serve, he says, and the relatively low salary shortens their tenures.
“I have the utmost respect to folks who do public service. … Anything the Legislature can do to help compensate the members of our judiciary better would only improve the bench,” says Wainwright, partner in Bracewell & Giuliani in Austin.
Judicial Compensation Commission member Pat Mizell notes that judges’ compensation is “extraordinarily low” compared to the pay of private-sector lawyers. For example, the salary of a district judge is much lower than a starting lawyer at his firm, Vinson & Elkins in Houston.
“It’s $40- to $50,000 less than what a 25-year-old kid out of law school makes,” he says, adding, “We’re already in a situation where it is starting to affect the quality of the judiciary. Good judges are having a very difficult time making ends meet under the current salary structure.”
The 80th Legislature created the commission, and the governor appoints members, subject to Senate consent.
The state pays the entire salary of jurists of the two high courts. Intermediate appellate justices and district court judges receive the majority of their salaries from the state, with supplemental pay from counties. The commission recommends increasing state salaries across the board by 21.1 percent to 21.5 percent.
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The commission studied statistics from the Texas Office of Court Administration and found that district judges serve an average of 9.4 years on the bench, appellate court justices serve an average of 11 years, and high-court jurists serve an average of 16 years. The judges’ legal careers, including their time on the bench, spanned about 30 years. Judges’ extensive legal experience may indicate that “compensation is a barrier to younger but still experienced attorneys,” says the report. Many judges may retire “in the near future,” and it’s important to ensure that “compensation is set at a level adequate to recruit the future generation. …”
But it may be hard to attract high-quality lawyers, because they make considerably more than Texas judges. The commission studied data from the State Bar of Texas and found that full-time lawyers make an average of $153,434.
In comparison, the Texas Supreme Court chief justice and Court of Criminal Appeals presiding judge earn $152,500.
Steve Burgess, judge of the 158th District Court in Denton, says the commission’s recommended pay raise for district judges — from $125,000 to $151,909 in state salary, plus supplemental pay from his county — would make a huge difference to his family, because he could “start thinking about helping my kids go to college.” Burgess and his wife have six children who range in age from 2 years old to 16 years old.
“I make much less than what I did as an attorney,” he says. “My children’s expectations of a college education, of what their world is going to be like, was shifted when I took office.”
Burgess says, when he took the bench, he took a loan from a relative to make payments on an unexpected $50,000 debt he incurred while closing his law practice; his new judicial salary wouldn’t cover the payment. He also sold his car to eliminate the car payment. His family doesn’t do everything it did before “because we don’t have the financial means to.”
“What I’m hoping is: They take a different lesson from that and realize, sometimes, it’s not just about you but about everyone one else and trying to serve — trying to do right, trying to do good and trying to help people,” he says, adding, “My wife and kids are not happy I’m a judge because of the impact it’s had at home.”
If judicial salaries remain stagnant, he says, he may have to quit.
“My youngest is 2 right now. … I’d reach a point I’d have to strongly consider stepping down in order to make the money to put those kids through school, to help them purchase a vehicle, to do those types of things. At some point it’s irresponsible and poor parenting for me to not do that. I’m sorry; I just want better for my kids,” Burgess says.
He adds, “If we want to retain qualified members of the judiciary, if we want people excited trying to help others, we at least need to make it less an impact on our families.”