Local extras boost pay for Ga. judges

Judges get thousands in county supplements and cost of living raises, AJC finds. Some lawmakers say they may have voted against new raises if supporters had been more transparent about past increases.

Raises of up to $12,000 for top judges won overwhelming support from lawmakers this year based in part on repeated declarations from supporters that the judiciary had missed out on pay hikes in the past.

In fact, some legislators and judges argued that the judiciary hadn’t received a raise since 1999, when then-Gov. Roy Barnes signed a pay bill similar to the one Gov. Nathan Deal inked last week.

But an Atlanta Journal-Constitution review found that cost-of-living raises granted to Supreme Court, Appeals Court and Superior Court judges have boosted the state pay of the positions about 17 percent since 1999. In some counties, local supplement increases have boosted the pay closer to 25-30 percent.

In Cobb County, pay for superior court judges increased about 40 percent because local lawmakers passed supplement bills 12 of the past 16 years.

Sponsors of the pay-raise bill told the AJC that they believed lawmakers knew when they voted that judges had gotten cost-of-living raises and local supplements.

But Sen. Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody, said, “We were told they hadn’t gotten raises since 1999.”

Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah, said, “It’s too bad because we didn’t find that out (about the raises) until after we voted, for a lot of us.”

Stephens said he would have voted for the raises anyway, even though his Superior Court judges are already among the highest paid in the state. Millar voted against the bill because local legislation passed decades ago tied the pay of several top DeKalb County employees to what Superior Court judges make.

Sen. Charlie Bethel, R-Dalton, who handled the judicial bill in the Senate, believed his colleagues understood that the judges had gotten cost-of-living raises and, in some cases, supplement increases, in the past.

“I can’t say what somebody else knew, but we didn’t hide the fact that there had been cost-of-living increases,” Bethel said.

Rep. Jay Powell, R-Camilla, the lawyer who sponsored House Bill 279 calling for the raises, also defended how he and others represented the legislation. “I did my best to make sure people understood what they were voting on and why,” Powell said.

But during committee hearings, Powell told colleagues that judges hadn’t seen a raise since Barnes signed the last pay bill in 1999. “ We’re talking about the judges and district attorneys have not had a raise since 1999, for 16 years,” he told the House Appropriations Committee on March 4.

Others, including judges themselves, repeated the story line that judges hadn’t seen raises.

Hall County Superior Court Judge Kathlene Gosselin told an appropriations subcommittee, “All of the judges should receive an increase in the state base pay because it has not been increased in 16 years.”

Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Hugh P. Thompson told House subcommittee members in February that a few of his colleagues had young children.

“I don’t want it to be said that trying to educate their children forced them to run off to some law school deanship or some law school professorship or some other job where they could make a lot more money,” he said. “I don’t want them to leave. I want them to stay.”

Several judges said they earn less than many of the lawyers who come before their court because private law firms pay better.

When the measure reached the House floor, Powell told lawmakers, “It has been 16 years, since 1999, since the Superior Court judges, Supreme Court and Appeals Court judges have gotten a raise, other than cost of living (raises). They have gotten cost of living raises.”

By that time, however, the narrative that judges hadn’t gotten raises in 16 years had already been set.

What judges earn

Nationally, judicial pay in Georgia ranks in the top third to top half of states, depending on the position. As of Jan. 1, the state Supreme Court’s pay ranked 22nd nationally, the Appeals Court’s pay ranked 12th and Superior Court’s 15th, according to a National Center for State Courts survey.

Currently, members of the Georgia Supreme Court currently earn $167,000 a year. The salary is $166,000 for members of the Appeals Court. Superior Court judges are paid $120,000 by the state, but most get local supplements ranging from $5,000 to more than $65,000, depending on where they serve.

Under the newly approved raise formula, judges, district attorneys and public defenders will get 5 percent raises. In addition, under a proposal the governor made, those officials in circuits with accountability courts — a majority of the circuits — will get an additional $6,000 boost.

Deal’s son is a superior court judge and the governor has been a big proponent of accountability courts.

With the accountability court supplements, many of the judges, district attorneys and public defenders will see $11,000 to $12,000 raises. That bumps the pay of some Superior Court judges in places such as Marietta, Augusta and Savannah to above or near $200,000 a year, much more than Supreme and Appeals Court judges make.

Georgia lawmakers approved a separate pay-raise bill for judges in 2008, only to have then-Gov. Sonny Perdue veto it. In his veto message, Perdue said that he had a study commissioned that showed state judiciary salaries were competitive, and that the retirement benefits were “above market.”

His veto came shortly before the Great Recession hit state finances, ending the era of cost-of-living raises for state employees, including judges.

Lawmakers have in recent years raised the pay of some low-salary employees, like prison guards and other public safety officers, in part to stem high turnover rates. Judges in some metro Atlanta circuits have gotten raises through the local supplement bills pushed by state lawmakers, often sponsored by lawyers.

“To claim you haven’t been getting pay raises when you have been getting increases in supplements …. that’s a raise,” said John Palmer, a Cobb County schools band director. “You can split hairs all you want.”

By contrast, the General Assembly included 1 percent more money in the upcoming year’s budget for state agencies to provide raises to their employees. They also approved more money for school districts, which will allow some of them to give teachers raises. Some teachers will get their biggest raise in several years. Some won’t get a raise.

When asked why judges would get a raise separate from the cost-of-living raises or merit raises of other state employees, Bethel said, “The question we face is what are the core and critical functions of government.

“I don’t know of anybody who wouldn’t argue that a strong, independent and effective judicial branch is critical to the operation of a free society,” he said. “We want to attract and keep the best legal minds in those judicial positions.”

Going forward, a commission will be set up to study and make recommendations on judicial pay, and Bethel and Powell both said it needs to look into two disparities in the system: that some superior court judges make far more than others because of the supplements; and that many Superior Court judges make far more than members of the Supreme Court and Appeals Court.

Pay boosts in Cobb

While lawmakers from other circuits have approved judicial supplement increases since the recession, Cobb County’s delegation has led the state in hiking pay for judges over the past few decades.

Many of the supplement increases have been sponsored by Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, the longest-serving legislator in the Cobb delegation. Starting in 1999, he sponsored supplement increases seven consecutive sessions. He sponsored another one in 2013, and was a co-sponsor other years.
“It costs more to live in Cobb County than it does in certain areas of the state,” Ehrhart said. “You want good judges and you want to make sure you pay a prevailing wage commensurate with their skills. In Cobb County, even a mediocre lawyer can make $150,000 a year. I don’t look at $185,000 for a Superior Court judge in Cobb County like it’s an obscene amount.”
Ehrhart says Cobb lawmakers review judicial salaries every year to decide whether to boost the supplement.
During hearings, Cobb County Superior Court Judge Mary E. Staley compared the judicial supplements to higher pay offered to good teachers to keep them from jumping to a new district or to make up for a higher cost of living.
Some legislators say they doubt circuits with big supplements, like those in Cobb and Chatham counties, have a hard time finding qualified judges.

"I don't think that's a problem in Chatham County," Rep. Christian Coomer, R-Cartersville, a lawyer, said during subcommittee debate on the bill. "Attracting qualified candidates is not an issue there. It may be in a circuit where you're making $120,000."

Rep. Ben Harbin, R-Evans, said he might have voted against the raises if he’d known the size of some that judges have gotten since 1999. So might have others, he said.

“I am one of those who thinks everybody needed some type of pay raise,” Harbin said. “But the message we just sent is we are going to look after different segments of our population differently. It is absolutely the wrong message. The teachers have been beaten up every year and have done their job, and in return, we have done nothing for them.”