In fact, Bethel was serving in the Georgia Senate in 2015 and handled legislation that gave top judges raises up to $12,000 the last time there was a successful major push in the General Assembly for a big judicial pay raise.
Peterson told the committees: “Retention has become a serious problem. I can list anecdote after anecdote of judges who have left the bench because they can’t afford to serve anymore.
“In my court, the Supreme Court, in just the last three years, we have seen three of our justices in a position where they needed to leave to be able to afford college for their kids.”
Bethel said there are currently three superior court judgeships open and one on the Court of Appeals.
The proposal approved by an ad hoc Judicial Council committee earlier this year would raise the base pay of Supreme Court justices from $186,112 a year to $223,400, Court of Appeals justices from $184,990 to $212,230, and Superior Court judges from $141,970 to $201,060.
The superior court pay is somewhat misleading because $141,970 is what the state pays. Counties can supplement those salaries — some do much more than others.
In 2015, when judges were selling a plan to boost pay, backers said judges hadn’t received a raise in 16 years. However, they’d gotten the same cost-of-living increases as every other state employee.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution also found in Cobb County, for instance, pay for superior court judges increased about 40% during that period because local lawmakers passed county supplemental pay bills 12 of the previous 16 years. Some superior court judges were making far more than members of the Georgia Supreme Court and Court of Appeals
Even today, the Judicial Council’s report said 69 superior court judges earn more than $201,060, the new base rate that is being proposed.
But many rural judges don’t get anywhere near the supplements paid to metro judges.
“The reliance on county supplements often provides a structural obstacle to increasing state salaries,” Peterson said. “Because if you are trying to increase salaries to take care of the people at the lower end, you also wind up increasing the salary for folks at the highest end, and while we want to pay our judges equitably, we don’t want to pay our judges the highest in the country.”
He also said it’s problematic for counties to pay supplements.
“There is inherent tension in a system in which state officials have to rely for a substantial portion of their compensation on entities that are not their employers and have material financial interests regularly impacted by a wide range of decisions those judges make,” he said.
There are also lawyers in the General Assembly who have cases before superior court judges and are responsible for approving county supplements for their counties. They would also vote on the plan the judges are proposing.
Big support from judges
Peterson said the top state judges and 86% of superior court judges expressed support for the new compensation plan, which didn’t shock lawmakers.
“I was not surprised to see 86% approval,” said Rep. Clay Pirkle, R-Ashburn, a subcommittee chairman on the House Appropriations Committee. “There is nothing like rallying the troops with an increase in pay plan.”
In making his case, Peterson said that in 2016 the starting salary for first-year associates at big Atlanta law firms was about $155,000, but it’s $215,000 a year now. Pay for Georgia Supreme Court justices ranks 32nd nationally, Appeals Court judges come in at 23rd nationally and superior court judges at 45th nationally in terms of state salaries, he said. If the pay plan is approved, those rankings would be 15th, 12th and 14th, respectively, he said.
The proposal — which would cost the state $21 million a year initially — would set salaries for Supreme Court justices at a base rate comparable to federal judges. Appeals Court justices would be paid about 95% of what a federal judge makes, and superior court judges 90%. Instead of the current county supplement system — which is based on whatever the local legislative delegation generally gets passed — superior court judges could get up to 10% “locality pay,” a kind of cost-of-living differential that could boost their salaries over $220,000 a year.
Superior court judges who already earn more than the state base rate could opt out of the pay plan. And while the salaries are tied to federal judicial pay — which rises every year — the General Assembly could decide not to fund increases every year.
State judges this fiscal year received the same $2,000 raise as most state employees. Last year legislators approved $5,000 raises.
However, at least from a financial standpoint, the judges couldn’t be asking for big raises at a better time. Three consecutive massive revenue surpluses have left the state with $16 billion in “rainy day” and undesignated reserves, a record amount, and the jurists are just one of many groups seeking increased spending from the General Assembly.
Boggs told the budget committees that prosecutors also need some help as assistant district attorneys can make far more going to work in private law practice or working for other government agencies.
“We have significant workforce development problems in the judicial branch,” Boggs said. “We have (judicial) circuits that can’t hire assistant DAs.
“There are disparate resource issues across the state.”
Lawmakers will consider the judicial pay proposals during the 2024 session, which begins Jan. 8.