The slightly ominous-sounding Washington Citizens’ Commission on Salaries for Elected Officials has approved pay raises for several state government officials, including judges. Most judges will receive an 8.5% pay hike this year, another another 2.5% raise in 2020. The raises are designed to keep state judicial compensation close to the pay scale for federal judges.
The West Virginia legislature has been busy introducing new bills that would affect the state courts. One bill would add magistrate judges to the court system and give all state magistrates a salary increase. Another bill would require that the state supreme court hear all appeals as of right.
Neither of these ideas is new — the magistrate bill was introduced without success in previous years, and the state supreme court already hears all appeals by court rule. But the bills are still significant. The magistrate bill acknowledges the continued resource needs of the court system in a state with a growing population. And the appeals bill, while merely codifying an existing practice, represents a carefully considered tradeoff between imposing burdens on the supreme court and the cost of creating an intermediate appellate court. At minimum, these bills are a sign that the legislature is thinking meaningfully about the needs of the court system after years of chaos within the judicial branch.
Last month, the new President of Mexico, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, publicly criticized the salaries of his country’s judges. It is now being reported that in response, the eleven justices of Mexico’s Supreme Court voted internally to reduce their pay by 25%.
Although the court said that its decision was made “in the interest of efficiency, savings, transparency and honoring the constitution,” this is plainly a response to Lopez Obrador’s relentless public statements on the subject. It’s a clear example of how external pressures can affect internal decision-making about court administration.
President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of Mexico lashed out against the country’s judiciary late last week, after Mexico’s Supreme Court suspended an austerity law that would have slashed the pay of many public employees.
Obrador, who has been in office for only two weeks, cut his own pay to less than half of his predecessor’s, and pushed through a law stipulating that no public sector employee could make more than the President himself. The Supreme Court suspended the law pending further review.
Obrador subsequently offered the following critique:
“I have no doubt that they’re the best paid public servants in the world,” the 65-year-old told a regular morning news conference on Tuesday, repeating that Mexico’s judges earn 600,000 pesos ($29,619) a month. Last week, before the court ruling, he described such a salary as tantamount to “corruption” in Mexico.
“With all due respect, only Donald Trump earns more than the president of the supreme court,” he added.
That, of course, has no basis in fact. But we’re talking about politics here, so what does that matter?
The court has accused Obrador of trying to undermine judicial independence. He’s not the only one these days.
Maryland’s Senate has approved a $20,000 pay raise for state judges, to be phased in over four years. The salary bump was $15,000/year less than the Judicial Compensation Commission had recommended. The legislation will also boost the pensions of retired judges in the state.
The Association of Judges in Ireland, the representative body for that country’s judges, has requested that the government restore judicial salaries to pre-financial crisis levels. New judicial appointees currently earn less than judges on the same court who were appointed before 2011.
In a questionable twist, however, the Association has argued that maintaining the lower salaries for new judges could constitute “indirect gender discrimination” because recent appointees include more women than before.
Come on. It’s hard to imagine why the Association would take such a specious position, especially with much more plausible arguments available. Ireland may not constitutionally protect judicial salaries, but surely the better case is that external control over judges’ pay wreaks havoc on judicial independence. Moreover, as the Association itself pointed out, similar discrepancies in teacher and health care worker pay were being addressed, leaving judges on the outside looking in.
Judges are naturally aware that their complaints about salary and benefits can sound elitist, especially when the even a “low” salary is well into six figures. But trying to invoke the specter of discrimination here is wildly counterproductive.
Roy Moore, the disgraced judge turned disgraceful Senate candidate, received good news recently when the Retirement Systems of Alabama (RSA) Board approved his $135,000 annual pension, representing 75% of his annual salary before he was suspended from his duties as Alabama Chief Justice in September 2016. The RSA Board indicated that it has no legal authority to reject or change a judge’s pension. Moore qualified for the pension under state law due to his previous years of service and age at the time he was suspended.
Meanwhile in Washington, Senator Charles Grassley recalled ex-judge Thomas Porteous’s efforts to fleece taxpayers with his own retirement pension. Porteous was impeached and removed from office in 2010 for taking bribes and engaging in a variety of corrupt acts. Shortly before he was impeached, Porteous tried to claim disability retirement in order to secure a lifetime annual salary of nearly $175,000.
No one could be blamed for wanting to deny retirement payments to judges whose conduct in office was reprehensible, as was the case (in different ways) for Moore and Porteous. The counterargument is that reprehensible conduct cannot be clearly defined, and the ability to remove benefits will become a weapon against judicial independence. Where and how should we draw the line?