Bill seeking raises for Georgia judges hits resistance in committee

A key House budget panel has slowed legislation to give the state’s top jurists big pay increases after raising concerns that Superior Court judges in some parts of Georgia are already making $185,000-$200,000 a year.

The raises proposed for them could make them among the highest paid trial judges in the country, according to national salary surveys.

Judges from the state Supreme Court, Court of Appeals and Superior Courts, along with district attorneys and public defenders, told a House budget panel Wednesday that they all backed legislation to give them $12,000-a-year raises.

The raise package, sponsored by a bipartisan group of leading House lawyer-legislators, would cost the state about $6.2 million a year. The measure, House Bill 279, would raise the salary of Supreme Court and Appeals Court judges by 7.1 percent and the base state pay of Superior Court judges by just under 10 percent.

With county supplements, Superior Court judges in some circuits such as Augusta and Cobb County would be making almost $200,000 a year. Rep. Christian Coomer, R-Cartersville, a member of the subcommittee, said at least one judge in Savannah already makes more than $200,000 a year because of various local supplements. Other Superior Court judges make only the state minimum, $120,000, or a little more.

Bill snags on Superior Court pay

While the panel seemed ready to back the Supreme Court and Appeals Court raises, the disparity in local subsidies for Superior Court judges and district attorneys across the state stalled the legislation. The bill was sent to a study committee to look at the disparity issue, but it could come back up for a vote in coming weeks.

“It is something that needs to be addressed, sooner rather than later,” said House Ways and Means Chairman Jay Powell, R-Camilla, who sponsored the pay raise bill. “I do not believe we need to postpone (the pay raise) for another year.”

The raises — if approved — would come after a years-long drought of pay increases for most state employees and teachers. Gov. Nathan Deal’s budget proposal for the upcoming year gives state agencies 1 percent more to spend on raises. School districts would receive extra money to give them the option of giving raises as well, although those raises aren’t expected to come anywhere close to what the judges could receive.

Supporters of the judicial raise measure in the General Assembly, and judges, say the extra money is needed to make sure top lawyers seek out judgeships when there are openings.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Hugh Thompson told the subcommittee that his court will have openings in the next few years as some of the older judges retire. Those openings are typically filled by the governor.

“I want to make sure when the opportunity presents itself, we can pick the very best,” Thompson said.

The additional $12,000 would increase Supreme Court judges’ pay to $179,210. Appeals Court judges would receive $178,186 a year.

Last raise came about 15 years ago

Supporters say the judges on those courts haven’t seen a boost in about 15 years. A bill to raise their pay was passed in the late 2000s, only to be vetoed by Gov. Sonny Perdue.

As of July 1, 2014, the state Supreme Court’s pay ranked 22nd nationally, and the Appeals Court’s pay ranked 12th, according to a National Center for State Courts survey. The raises, if approved, would likely make Georgia’s top judges among the highest paid in the South.

Some Superior Court judges would be among the highest paid in the nation. Superior Court judges would see their state pay go to $132,252 under the legislation. In all but one circuit, however, they also receive annual supplements, ranging from $5,000 to more than $65,000, according to state figures. State legislators from those circuits — often lawyers — regularly file bills to increase those supplements for their judges. Many district attorneys, particularly in metro Atlanta, also get large local supplements.

Because of the supplements, one-third of Superior Court judges earn more than members of the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals, the highest courts in the state. That wouldn’t change with the raises being proposed by House leaders because all the judges would get the same increase.

‘Gross inequities’ cited in pay disparity

The disparity in local supplements to Superior Court judges and district attorneys was one of the two issues that disturbed members of the subcommittee.

Coomer called them “gross inequities” in pay.

“How does this committee come to terms with enhancing salaries in this state at the same time there are such disparities across the board?” Coomer asked.

Coomer asked whether Superior Court judges had talked about a tiered system, where lower-paid judges would get bigger raises.

Cobb County Superior Court Judge Mary Staley, the president of the Council of Superior Court Judges, said they hadn’t. But she compared local judicial supplements to supplements paid in some counties to attract and retain teachers.

Increases would extend beyond courts

Another issue lawmakers raised is that increasing judicial pay automatically gives raises to some other state and county employees. For instance, under Georgia law, members of the state Board of Workers’ Compensation are paid 90 percent of what a Court of Appeals judge makes. So board members’ pay would jump almost $11,000 if judges get the $12,000 raise proposed in the House bill.

Depending on the county, a pay raise for Superior Court judges would force local officials to give pay increases to county commissioners, tax commissioners, local coroners, clerks, sheriffs and a host of lower-level judges.

“I think members of the committee need to know what other effects this will have on other officials,” said Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell.

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