Lawyer-legislators push for raises for Georgia judges

A bipartisan group of key House lawyer-legislators is pushing a proposal to give the state’s top judges a $12,000 raise during the upcoming fiscal year, making some of them among the best-paid jurists in the Southeast and possibly the nation.

The measure, sponsored by House Ways and Means Chairman Jay Powell, R-Camilla, and co-sponsored by House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta, and House Judiciary Chairman Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, 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.

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.

“We want to make sure we continue to have a pool of good, respected lawyers come forward to say, ‘I am willing to change my career and take on public service,’ ” Willard said.

Pay could be among highest in nation

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

Supporters say the judges on those courts haven’t received 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 Jan. 1, the state Supreme Court’s pay ranked 18th nationally, and the Appeals Court’s pay ranked 11th, 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 nation.

Superior Court judges would see their state pay go to $132,252. In all but one circuit, however, they also receive annual supplements, ranging from $5,000 in the Southwestern Circuit to more than $65,000 in Cobb County and Augusta, according to state figures. State legislators from those circuits — often lawyers — regularly file bills to increase those supplements for their judges.

Because of the supplements, Supreme Court Justice Harold Melton noted last year, one-third of Superior Court judges earn more than members of the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals, the highest courts in the state. Some Superior Court judges make $20,000 more per year than members of his court, Melton said. That wouldn’t change with the raises being proposed by House leaders because all the judges would get the same increase.

The raises in the House measure are smaller than the judges requested. Supreme Court and Appeals Court judges wanted a $25,000 raise, and Superior Court judges requested a $15,000 increase. The judges are hoping for a series of raises over the next three years to catch up from years in which their state salaries were stagnant.

‘A work in process’

House Appropriations Chairman Terry England, R-Auburn said, “We would still have to find the money in the budget” for the raises being proposed.

But in truth, it’s already there. By law, Deal’s budget proposal has to include judicial spending requests. So his proposal includes funding for the higher, $25,000 and $15,000 raises judges requested last fall.

Powell said House members looked at what they thought was fair and what they thought the state could afford.

“It was a compromise,” he said. “It’s a work in process. It is not written in concrete by any stretch of the imagination.”

Lawyer-legislators note that in some cases, attorneys practicing before judges earn a lot more than the judges hearing their case.

Others would also get raises

Powell said that in recent years, lawmakers have been pooling raise money to help increase pay in areas where the government has been losing top workers, such as in the prison system and law enforcement, because state salaries weren’t competitive. The House bill would also boost the state pay of district attorneys, from about $114,000 to $125,000.

But it’s not like the state is having a desperately hard time filling judgeships. Getting a seat on one of the state’s highest courts would be the pinnacle of many a lawyer’s career. And, as one lawmaker said, there are long lines of attorneys seeking judgeships when there are openings, including lawyer-legislators and members of their families who often seek gubernatorial appointments.

While judges must occasionally run for re-election, they rarely face much in the way of political competition. Court historians told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution a few years ago that as far as they could determine, no sitting Georgia Supreme Court justice had ever been defeated in an election bid.

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.

Lawyers in power in House

The first five signers on the House judicial pay raise bill are lawyers. The leader of the House, Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, and Majority Leader Larry O’Neal, R-Bonaire, are also attorneys, as is Rep. Alex Atwood, R-St. Simons Island, the chairman of the House Budget subcommittee that handles judicial spending.

The Senate, meanwhile, is led by Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Senate President Pro Tem David Shafer, R-Duluth, neither of whom are lawyers.

Senate Minority Whip Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, said the proposal may get a cooler reception in his chamber if it passes the House.

“I just think it’s a slap in the face of teachers and other state employees who have suffered through many years of no raises and are now getting 1 percent more, for these judges to walk away with $12,000,” Fort said. “It’s just unbelievable. The situation is made worse by the fact that many of these lawyers sponsoring the bill appear before some of these same judges.”

John Palmer, a Cobb County schools band director and spokesman for the teacher protest group TRAGIC, said it’s troubling that lawmakers would consider judicial raises at the same time they debate Deal’s proposal to cut health insurance for school bus drivers.

“It does take good salary and benefits to attract qualified candidates, but I don’t see any shortage of judges,” Palmer said. “I drove by three signs today asking for bus drivers, however, so we seem to have a shortage of qualified drivers to transport our children. Budgets show priorities, and this is yet another case where education is obviously not a priority.”

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