West Virginia’s Supreme Court has been in the news this year for all the wrong reasons, but that did not prevent the state’s Judicial Compensation Commission from recommending a salary increase for all levels of the judiciary. The increase — of more than 18% for most judges — was driven heavily by comparisons to other states. West Virginia currently ranks 53rd among states and territories for judicial compensation.
A guest post by Lawrence Friedman
The tensions between state and federal authorities resulting from the Trump administration’s immigration policies are evident in debates over a proposed southern border wall, sanctuary cities and, in Massachusetts, the indictment of District Court Judge Shelley M. Joseph on obstruction of justice charges. An April 25, 2019 grand jury indictment alleges misconduct in her courtroom involving Immigration and Custom Enforcement officials and immigrants who had been held in state custody. While the federal criminal process moves forward in the wake of Joseph’s not-guilty plea, the federalism and state sovereignty issues have featured in a separate proceeding concerning her initial suspension without pay by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) in an order issued the same day as the grand jury indictment.
The SJC based its initial order “solely on the fact that [Judge Joseph] had been indicted for alleged misconduct in the performance of her judicial duties.” Joseph subsequently sought partial reconsideration, arguing that she should be suspended with pay, rather than without; and that she should be suspended only from her judicial duties. Following a nonevidentiary hearing, the SJC issued a revised order on August 13: a majority of the justices concluded that suspension with pay was appropriate in the unique circumstances of the case, and denied Joseph’s request to be assigned administrative duties.
The court was right to grant reconsideration and reverse course on the question whether Joseph should be paid during her suspension. It initially imposed suspension without pay absent any inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the federal indictment, relying for guidance on precedent as well as the Massachusetts Trial Court personnel policy and state statutes. Past suspensions notably had been imposed following findings indicating circumstances in which discipline was appropriate. As for the Trial Court policy, it provides that “[a]n employee who is indicted for misconduct in office … shall be suspended without pay until the conclusion of the criminal proceedings,” while Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 30, Section 59, and Chapter 268A, Section 25 authorize the suspension of state officers and employees during any period they are under indictment for misconduct. These rules, as the SJC observed in Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority v. Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority Retirement Board, serve “to remedy the untenable situation which arises when a person who has been indicted for misconduct in office continues to perform his [or her] public duties while awaiting trial.”
Notwithstanding the laudable aim of the rules, their automatic application to a judge may be problematic—particularly when the criminal allegations involve conduct in the courtroom, as opposed to actions outside the scope of the judicial function. Here, the SJC’s initial reliance on the mere fact of the indictment as a basis for suspending Joseph obscured a legitimate concern about prosecutorial intrusion into a trial judge’s authority to control her own courtroom. That a federal prosecutor sought the indictment, moreover, potentially raises federalism and separation of powers issues. In these circumstances, some kind of pre-suspension inquiry was warranted—an inquiry that the SJC ultimately made through the hearing on Joseph’s reconsideration motion, aided by the briefs of the parties and amici on the question of whether her suspension should be with or without pay.
No doubt, the SJC’s decision to reconsider the terms of Judge Joseph’s suspension will offend many Massachusetts citizens; as Justice Frank Graziano argued in his dissent, they will see the court as according a judge special treatment by restoring her pay. But, as the concurring justices noted, the decision to suspend Joseph without pay effectively denied her the ability to mount a defense to the criminal charge against her—a charge that may well implicate both judicial independence and the sovereign authority of the state judiciary itself. By ordering suspension with pay, the SJC has given Joseph the ability to mount a vigorous defense—in the knowledge that her trial may well test the extent to which state and federal law enforcement officials can act in spaces that traditionally have been seen as beyond their reach.
Louisiana legislators voted overwhelmingly last week to raise the salaries of state judges by 2.5% in the coming year. If funds permit, judges would continue to receive equivalent pay raises for each of the four years after that as well.
The source of the funding struck me as noteworthy:
The Louisiana Supreme Court agreed to cover the first year of pay raises for judges — at an estimated cost of $1.8 million — from its substantial cash reserves. It’s unclear whether judges will continue to tap reserves or turn to state taxpayers to cover future raises, which could cost as much as $9.5 million per year if all five annual pay hikes are awarded.
I thought that judicial salaries typically came from funds controlled by the legislature. It’s quite interesting that salaries are to be paid (at last initially) out of the state supreme court’s “substantial” independent funds.
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.