CHARLESTON -- The West Virginia Supreme Court has endorsed legislation that would significantly raise the salaries of the state's 45 family court judges.
In a rarity for the court, Chief Justice Brent Benjamin submitted a letter to lawmakers supporting bills introduced in the House and Senate that would raise family court judges' pay from $82,500 to $111,000 on July 1.
The Supreme Court justices endorsed the legislation during a recent administrative conference.
In addition to the Supreme Court's endorsement, the respective bills carry important sponsors -– Sen. Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, and Delegate Carrie Webster, D-Kanawha, chairmen of each chamber's judiciary committee, crucial first hurdles for the legislation's movement through the process.
Benjamin in his letter said that at the family court judges' current salary, they're the lowest paid in the country, according to the National Center for State Courts. The next lowest paid family court judges make $17,500 more than West Virginia's family court judges, Benjamin noted.
Benjamin added that family court judges make $7,500 less than state prosecutors.
"That too seems counterintuitive, since I know of no other case in the nation where prosecutors are paid more than any judges (except various versions of magistrates)," Benjamin wrote. "Again, that does not strike members of the court as appropriate."
The raises are justified because of the state's increasing emphasis on family matters, Benjamin said.
"Nowhere are families in greater need than during time before a family court judge," Benjamin wrote. "Whether they are making decisions regarding divorces or about domestic violence, family court judges' work is vital to the next chapter of these troubled families' lives ... A good family court judge can make all of the difference in myriad lives in the most personal ways imaginable."
The pay raise would cost $1.28 million -- $1.5 million when considering retirement, health care and other costs.
Benjamin said he is not "blind" to the economic challenges facing the state and the country.
"I realize that this is an especially tough year to be requesting any kind of pay increase," Benjamin wrote. "However, it is unconscionable for our state's family court judges to be making $17,500 less than their colleagues in other states and less than even prosecutors here at home. This is an issue that needs to be addressed; this is a pay raise that is a real necessity in order to show the respect to families and their needs that is clearly a priority of our government."
Supreme Court Administrator Steve Canterbury said the court plans to try to convince lawmakers that they wouldn't have to increase the court's budget by that much to cover the raise. He said there are ways the court could move some money around in the budget to cover part of the increase.
Canterbury said one example is that the court over-budgeted for anticipated costs of pensions through the judicial retirement system. Canterbury said the actuarial amount released in December was less than what the agency budgeted for over the summer.
The bills come on the heels of a recent story by The Associated Press that indicated Gov. Joe Manchin sought to create a commission to study the state's court system partly because of a concern for the growing budget of the Supreme Court, which oversees and funds all the lower courts and ancillary services.
Canterbury said the story was in error and misleading. He's issued an op-ed to newspapers around the state to try to clarify the story, which said the court's spending has increased by 57 percent over the last five years.
Canterbury said the court's increase in spending general revenue funds has increased by about 30 percent over that time, which he said is in line with other agencies.
He said the increase in the court's spending is mostly due to new initiatives passed by the Legislature, many of which were sought by the court and endorsed by the governor. Canterbury said about 90 percent of the increase to the court's budget is because of those mandates.
But Canterbury said the court has been able to reduce spending state money by being more aggressive in obtaining federal funds to pay for many of the new initiatives.
He said when he took the reins at the court in 2005, the court's budget contained about $250,000 in federal money. He said now the court has more than $6 million in federal funds.
The Supreme Court's current budget is $115 million. The proposed budget for the next fiscal year is $119 million.