Raises For Judges Considered Amid Budget Trouble

The state has to cut the current year’s budget by $198 million within the next 30 days, and revenues next year will be down by $214 million. A judicial commission has recommended that legislators raise the pay of state judges over the next two years. Civil service workers haven’t received their 4 percent annual merit pay increases for the past three years.

Is there something there that seems out of sync with current economic conditions? If you picked the suggested pay raise for judges, give yourself an A-plus.

Louisiana judges received pay increases in 8 of the last 11 years, but they didn’t get one this year. So the Judicial Compensation Commission thinks they are entitled to some additional income in the 2012-13 fiscal year that starts next July 1 and again in 2013-14.

The compensation commission acts as sort of a buffer between the Legislature and the judicial system. It is made up of 15 members who are appointed by the governor, president of the Senate, speaker of the House, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, the Conference of the Courts of Appeal, the Louisiana District Judges Association and the Louisiana State Bar Association. Gene Thibodeaux, chief judge of the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal, is the only member from Southwest Louisiana.

Members of the commission at one time were so heavily weighted in favor of the judicial system the law was amended to provide that five of the 15 appointees have to be representative of the general public. They can’t be attorneys or legislators.

District court judges currently receive $136,544 a year, appeal court judges, $142,447, and Supreme Court justices, $149,572.

A study paid for by the commission looked at a five-year pay increase plan. However, Joe Toomy, chairman, said members decided to go with just two years because of the financial uncertainty that far out. And those recommended increases would range from just under 1 percent to 3.8 percent.

That doesn’t sound like much until you crunch the numbers. The two-year increases for district judges would total $5,460. Appeal court judges would get $8,222 more over that period, and Supreme Court justices would receive $10,368 over the two-year period. Their annual salaries would go to $142,004, $150,669 and $159,940, respectively.

Toomy is a former state representative who handled most of those 8 judicial raises in 11 years. He defended the work of his commission in a recent letter to the editor, saying its work is limited to studying judicial salaries and making recommendations to the Legislature 60 days before a regular session. He said the ball is then in the hands of legislators who can accept or reject the suggested increases.

“Historically, the recommendations of the commission have been limited to a standard cost-of-living increase,” Toomy said. “Moreover, over the past 15 years the commission has never recommended an annual increase of greater than 5 percent, notwithstanding the fact that economic reports relative to judicial salaries indicated the need for greater increases…”

Tell that to Gov. Bobby Jindal, who receives $130,000 annually, and the six other statewide elected officials who are paid $115,000 a year. And those officials haven’t received 8 increases over the last 11 years.

Supporters of judicial pay raises like to talk about Louisiana judicial salaries being below the Southern and national averages for judges. Loren Scott, who did the commission study, said the averages for Southern state district court judges is $138,926, appeal court judges, $147,441, and Supreme Court justices, $156,476.

We never see any comparison with other states when it comes to judicial retirement plans and benefits, which are substantial in Louisiana. Toomy mentioned, for example, that starting Jan. 1 district court judges would receive a $100-a-month “supplemental compensation” based on money from filing fees and other sources. He said that authorization was given the judges by the Legislature years ago.

I often wonder how sitting judges feel about comments made by those who support higher judicial salaries. Kirby Newburger is one example. He is a financial planner from Metairie who is a member of the compensation commission.

“I don’t believe under the current pay schedule that we’re recruiting to the bench, the best candidates,” Newburger said.

Larry Feldman, who was named to the commission by the bar association, said, “Raising salaries can lead to a higher quality in the judiciary.”

Judges aren’t perfect, of course, but I’ve known some awfully good ones over the years.

Something tells me these suggested pay raises are going to have tough sledding in the Legislature. But don’t worry, judges currently on the bench aren’t going to go hungry if they have to go another year or two without a pay increase.

Jim Beam, the retired editor of the Lake Charles American Press, has covered people and politics for more than ÿve decades. Contact him at 494-4025 or [email protected].

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