JUDICIAL PAY RAISE BILL SIGNED

April 16, 2012 § 2 Comments

HB 484 was signed into law Friday by Governor Bryant, putting into effect the first pay raise for Mississippi judges in nearly 10 years. The bill increases pay for appellate and trial judges in five increments over five years, beginning 2013. It is funded entirely by an increase in court filing fees that still leaves our state last in the southeast in the amount one has to pay to initiate a legal proceeding.

Many people helped get this done, and if I tried to name those who did, I would surely offend someone by omission, but this was a team effort by judges, legislators, leadership of the bar, lawyers, and laypeople who understand the importance of an independent, adequately-compensated judiciary.

The bill also establishes a group to study judicial compensation and make recommendations that would hopefully remove judges’ pay from the political-football status it has enjoyed hitherto. Maybe pay could be tied to a percentage of federal judges’ pay, or the southeastern average, or some other objective standard.

The entire budget for the judiciary in Mississippi is less than 1/2 of 1% of the state budget. Yes, less than 1/2 of 1%. The third, constitutionally co-equal branch of state government gets 1/2 of 1% of the entire state budget to fund its entire operation, which includes: salaries and state portion of benefits for 19 appellate judges and approximately 100 trial judges; salaries and state portion of benefits for staff attorneys and/or law clerks for judges who have them; an office expense allowance for each judge; the mini-bureaucracy in Jackson; in-state travel (some limited funds are available, rarely, to attend out-of-state conferences); and the judicial college in Oxford that provides much-needed training for judges. That’s a lot to squeeze into 1/2 of 1%.

A nearby legislator who voted against the bill was asked by an attorney why he voted against the bill. His response was, “They make enough.” I hope he gave the issue more thought than that. Even with the pay raise, Mississippi judges rank at or near the bottom of the southeastern average. As it stands now, it is a considerable sacrifice for most of us to take a job as a judge. What we give up financially is the possibility to earn more, the advantage of owning a business that can pay many expenses that judges have to shoulder personally, and the possibility of entering business ventures with others. But the limitations are not only financial. We have to submit to the code of judicial ethics, which limits us in many ways, and any judge who has done the job for even a short time can describe the feeling of isolation that comes with the wall of separation that is required to do it properly.

Despite the limitations, Mississippi has a remarkably talented, dedicated and competent judiciary. It struck me from the beginning as I saw judges at meetings and conferences how seriously they take their jobs. Judges work in our state, and they work hard, trying their best to follow the law and making difficult decisions.

Maybe our legislative leaders will find a new way in the future to give the judiciary adequate tools to do its job. Commerce depends on courts that are sound, consistent and clear in their rulings. Society depends on courts that are fair and equitable in resolving disputes among citizens, and sure and just in addressing criminal behavior. Government depends on the balance that the judicial branch provides.

It’s true that it all boils down to money, but we need to have the best government we can afford, not the cheapest we can get by with.

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