EDITORIAL: Judicial pay

By NEMS Daily Journal

Raising the pay of public officials is never politically popular. The public attitude often is that they knew what the job paid when they ran for it, so they should be content with their compensation.
That’s been the case for years, long before the recent recession decimated government treasuries.
But in these lean times, raising the pay of public officials is an especially hard – actually, a virtually impossible – sell.
So it was not a big surprise that the Mississippi House of Representatives last week rejected raises for the state’s appellate and trial judges.
The vote for a bill previously passed by the Senate in a different form was 59-58, but a three-fifths vote was necessary for passage.
The raises phased in over five years would have ranged up to 38 percent in some cases, and would have been paid for by an increase in court filing fees.
The chief justice of the Supreme Court would have seen his salary increase from $115,390 to $159,000, while associate justices would have gone from $105,050 to $144,827. Trial judges would have seen an increase from $104,170 to $136,000.
It just wasn’t good timing for any raises, but the amounts made it particularly problematic.
While the politics is understandable, the fact remains that Mississippi’s judges are significantly underpaid – not by the standards of most Mississippians, but certainly by what their earning potential would be in the private practice of law. That affects the ability to attract top-flight lawyers to the judiciary.
Our judges’ pay is last among the states and the District of Columbia, and it’s way behind our neighboring states. Alabama’s chief justice makes $181,000, for example. The lowest salary in states contiguous to Mississippi is $144,000 in Louisiana.
Some financial sacrifice is usually expected when a person enters public service, but that must be balanced with the necessity of minimizing the disparity so that a high caliber of public servant is the rule.
The best lawyers make a lot of money; the salaries of the people who run our judicial system should acknowledge that fact, not matching the best private sector compensation, of course, but taking it into account in order to encourage a high-caliber, independent judiciary.
This obviously was not the year for the raises that were proposed, politically speaking. But the issue of judicial salaries needs to remain on the table.
Populist opposition to upgrading the pay of judges is short-sighted and self-defeating for anyone interested in an effective, impartial judiciary in this state.