FINAL THOUGHTS ON THE JUDICIAL PAY RAISE (UNTIL NEXT YEAR)
March 1, 2011 § 1 Comment
Please pause a minute in your busy day and think back on the legislature’s slapdown of a judicial pay raise last week and its ramifications for your practice of law. Yes, whatever affects the court system directly affects how effectively you can represent your clients and what your future in the legal profession will be. You should be as vitally interested in the judicial system as a doctor is in the viability of the local hospitals and medical support system.
The courts are where you do your work, whether you are a court room lawyer or not. You need judges to get your job done. And you need good judges. Good judges are diligent, know the law and hold you to high standards. Bad judges leave you open to complaints and worse from your clients, neglect their work, and make your job considerably more difficult.
Our courts are the place where people bring their knotty problems — ones they can’t find a way to settle on their own. In chancery court, those problems include those that are at the very heart of the family, that involve inheritance and care for those who can’t take care of themselves, that deal with people’s real property rights, and even that involve dissolution of businesses, among many others. The judicial function is a critically important service provided by the state. It gives people a civilized way to resolve conflicts without bloodshed. Our courts are crucial to commerce.
But when it comes to funding this essential service, Mississippi treats the judicial branch like an afterthought. The judicial branch receives less than one-half of one percent of the entire state budget. That means that the legislative and executive branches feed off of 99.996% of your tax dollars. If it is true that government is a burden on taxpayers, as some maintain, the judicial branch in Mississippi is a featherweight.
When we underfund the judiciary, we aren’t simply starving the judges, we are depriving our citizens of the best value they can enjoy from an independent, competent, dedicated judiciary.
Down below you can read how Mississippi’s judicial pay ranks 51st in a nation of 50 states. How can we be proud of lagging behind places like Arkansas and Alabama, of all places? How can we set our sights so low when we have so much going for us? Is that really what we aspire to — to be the last or worst; to be like an Arkansas or Alabama — or worse?
I’m proud to live in Mississippi. I got my college and law school education here, raised and educated my three children here, go to church here, pay taxes here, and work as hard as I know how to be a good judge here. There is so much to treasure in Mississippi: wonderful people; our musical heritage; hunting, fishing and the outdoors; a small-town sense of community; world-class research facilities; a literary legacy no other state can match; beaches, the Delta, the hills, the Black Belt; and so much more. I could go on and on, but you get the point. How could any true Mississippian stand to be second to anyone else?
A lawyer I know suggested that the legislators voted against the pay raise (some legislators believe it or not voted against any appropriation for the courts) because they were afraid of voter reaction in November. If that’s the case, then why don’t they just pass a bill to tie judicial pay to a percentage of federal judge pay and be done with it? That way, they could absolve themselves of all blame as the pay would set itself in relation to federal pay. And if it is a fear reaction in an election year, what was their rationale in all those non-election years when they said “now is not the time.” I hate to think that there’s really simply a control issue here. I mean, don’t we make our decisions based on what’s best for the citizens we serve? Or are there some other dynamics at work? And should there be?
While you’re taking a few minutes to ponder all of this, I recommend that you check out Philip Thomas’s take on this issue at his Mississippi Litigation Review & Commentary blog.
Another chancellor sent the following thoughts. They’re worth mulling over.
“Facts about the vote of SB 2253 and judicial pay:
11 Republicans voted to pass the bill. 40 Republicans voted against the bill. 2 Republicans were either absent or not voting.
48 Democrats voted to pass the bill. 18 Democrats voted against the bill. 2 Democrats were either absent or not voting. 1 Democrat voted Present.
22 attorneys voted to pass the bill while 3 attorneys voted against the bill.
Under Rep. Blackmon’s amendment, salary increases would have been phased in over a 4 year period. The first increase was scheduled for July 1, 2012, with subsequent increases occurring on July 1, 2013, July 1, 2014, and July 1, 2015.
The salary increases were fully funded by user fees, yet the so-called conservative opposition says “We don’t have the money.”
The last salary increase for state judges, other than justice court judges, took effect January 1, 2004.
It has now been 8 years since the last salary increase, with no relief in sight.
The salary for trial and appellate court judges in Mississippi ranks 51st in a nation with 50 states. Salaries for judges in the District of Columbia exceed those for judges in Mississippi. In addition, judges in the American Samoa, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands are paid more than Mississippi Judges. The only judges paid less than Mississippi judges are the judges of the pie eating contest at your local county fair, if you still have one.
‘These people are the salt of the earth who have dedicated their lives to serve the people of Mississippi,’ said Rep. Bo Eaton, D-Taylorsville. 58 members of the Mississippi House of Representatives were not at all impressed.”
I want to emphasize that no tax dollars were to be used to fund this raise, and even with the proposed raise in court costs, Mississippi’s would still be the lowest court costs of all the southern states. It would have been strictly a user’s fee.
I urge you as a member of the legal profession to give this issue some serious thought. Where do we want our court system to be? Do we really want to be last, or do our citizens deserve better? What can or should you as a lawyer do to help the situation? Do we want the best government we can afford or the cheapest we can get by with?