By: Gary Gosselin, Michigan Lawyers Weekly
LANSING — Judicial pay raises of 3 percent for 2015 and 3 percent for 2016 were discussed at length by the State Officers Compensation Commission, and should result in a recommendation to the state Legislature before summer.
Raises have to be for the Michigan Supreme Court Justices, because all other judicial pay rates in Michigan are linked to those increases and also would receive 3 percent. About 600 judges would be affected.
Any increase has to be approved concurrent resolution adopted by a majority in each house.
“Our job on the commission is to try to be certain that the compensation of our highest elected officials is consistent with multiple benchmarks,” said Commissioner David Fink, a Bloomfield Hills attorney. “We look to other states, we look within the state and historical benchmarks, and by all measures, a raise for our judges is seriously overdue.”
Fink said with the rate of inflation, cost of living has increased nearly 30 percent since the last raise, noting that nonelected state employees who serve in the post of administrative law judge or hearing officer have seen increases of more than 23 percent.
During discussions, all seven commissioners made statements positively acknowledging that it is probably time for the raises.
SOCC Chairman Larry Meyer, former president of the Michigan Retailers Association, said things have changed since the last request.
“The economic realities are different than two years ago, but it had merit last time and there seems to be merit this time too,” said Meyer, who also serves as chair of the Board of Trustees at Lansing Community College.
State Court Administrator Chad Schmucker addressed the panel. He reminded them that in 2011, the SOCC recommended 3 percent increases in 2013 and 2014, but the Supreme Court, the State Bar of Michigan and all three judicial associations said, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
Schmucker cited the poor economy at the time for the nonsupport of the raises, but noted a lot has changed since then.
He cited the judicial reduction legislation to eliminate 36 judgeships, which has saved $1.6 million annually and will save $6.4 million when the cuts are complete.
The cuts are unprecedented, Schmucker said, noting no other state has cut its trial bench by more than one or two.
Courts are consolidating, too, he said, often with circuit, probate and district courts sharing a building and staff and distributing caseload evenly among all judges.
Another change was the appointment of 34 chief judges to oversee more than one court, with decisions made to address the needs of the entire circuit rather than those of an individual court.
Schmucker also discussed the 170 problem-solving courts (drug courts, veterans’ courts, etc.) and the relatively new practice of a performance measurement program to help increase efficiency in the courts.
“It’ll be 13 years since the last raise and most people think that’s enough,” Schmucker toldMichigan Lawyers Weekly. “The Legislature has certainly approved raises for other state employees over the years, and it doesn’t seem unreasonable after all this time.
“I’m guardedly optimistic. The cost of 3 percent is about $2.5 million a year, so in the context of the state budget, it isn’t overwhelming.”
The Bar sent a letter to the commissioners, citing the restructuring, specialty courts, cost cutting, and improving services.
“We have long supported significant increase in judicial compensation that recognizes the work underway and begins to make up for the lost earning capacity from more than a decade of salary stagnation,” the letter explains, in part. “The request of the State Court Administrator for a 3% increase in two consecutive years is consistent with our position.”
Even in the depths of recession, state employees were still getting raises, Fink said to the panel, and have netted about 25 percent since 2002. With that in mind, he suggested the panel discuss the possibility of recommending 6 percent in 2015 and 6 percent in 2016.
He explained that the Legislature doesn’t have to follow the recommendation and can approve something less, but it cannot increase the percentage above what is recommended.
Judge John Gillis of 3rd Circuit Court in Detroit said raises are “way overdue,” and that if judges had gotten the same percentage of raises as state employees, the pay for circuit and probate judges would be around $172,000, rather than the current $139,919.
“We suggested they do nothing [in 2011] because of the state budget at the time. Things are much better now, the economics are much different — and these aren’t effective until 2015. That’s 13 years” since the last raise in 2002, Gillis said.
Gillis said he expects a 3 percent to 5 percent recommendation for 2015 and 2016, noting Michigan is the only state where the judiciary hasn’t had a raise since 2002.
He said Illinois circuit court judges earn $180,802; New York is at $160,000; Pennsylvania trial court judges earn $169,541; and federal district judges, who used to make the same as Michigan’s judges, now earn $174,000.
Judge William J. Richards of the 46th District Court in Southfield said he has some misgivings about receiving raises, and worries about a limited pool of money.
“My concern is, at what cost does a pay raise to judges come?” Richards asked. “Do legislators say, ‘Fine you can have it, but your budget stays the same as last year’? And if you have to cut, you have to cut people or salaries or benefits.
“The more difficult decision is the one the Legislature has — they’re dealing with a pie that’s only so big and the SOCC is diligent, but they don’t have to balance a budget and don’t have to decide between competing requests for dollars. There’s undoubtedly a lot of good competing programs, and everybody wants more money for programs and for their people — it is tough decisions they have to make.”
He noted there is a hiring freeze in Southfield, police force is shrinking, and property tax income has yet to rebound to help fund municipalities.
“Our court staffs aren’t getting raises either, and give a bump to the highest paid — I’m still uncomfortable taking care of the judges and not the staff,” Richards said.
The commission staff is going to attempt to get representatives of both parties from both houses to the next meeting so SOCC members can explain the thought processes behind whatever decision they make and get feedback about the possibility of passage.
It’s expected that the next meeting will be scheduled with three to four weeks.
The pay raise recommendation process was that the SOCC would pass a proposal, and unless a supermajority of both houses voted it down, the pay increase would become effective
But, in 2000 there was a proposal from the SOCC for a 38 percent increase in pay for legislators. The House voted to stop the increase and the Senate voted just short of two-thirds, and the increases went into effect.
A political storm ensued.
A constitutional amendment in 2002 called for the current system, but enabling legislation was delayed until Jan. 1, 2008. Because of the delay, the commission couldn’t vote in the years it met in 2002, 2004 and 2006.
If you would like to comment on this story, call Gary Gosselin at (248) 865-3103 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.