CHARLESTON – A bill that would give judges in the state a pay raise is moving along in the state Legislature, but not without controversy and questions.
The Senate Judiciary Committee approved Senate Bill 512 on Feb. 21, but Chairman Corey Palumbo said he would have trouble justifying it this year.
"I personally don't believe we can justify giving judges a raise if public employees don't get one," Palumbo, D-Kanawha, told the Charleston Gazette. "I think their raise is overdue, and they're deserving, but so are a lot of employees who work for the state."
The House Judiciary committee advanced a similar bill (HB3147) the week before.
Both bills would increase salaries for Supreme Court justices from $121,000 to $150,000, and would provide commensurate increases for circuit judges, family law judges and magistrates. The total cost would be $6.3 million a year, including increases in contributions to the judges' pension funds.
The executive director of a statewide legal reform group lashed out at the pay raise proposal.
"The House Judiciary Committee's recent attempt to raise the salaries of all West Virginia judges seems foolish," Richie Heath of West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse said. "Our state judges, most of whom earn more than $100,000 a year at a time when the average annual income for West Virginians is fourth worst in the nation at around $37,000, currently preside over a court system which is ranked worst in the nation. A pay raise hardly seems appropriate at this time.
"Instead of granting lucrative pay raises for a select few, state lawmakers need to focus on the legal reforms that would help attract well-paying jobs to our state. The proposed $6.1 million in judicial pay raises, ironically, is similar in size to the cost of creating an intermediate appeals court, which many legislators have criticized as being too expensive.
"The House Judiciary Committee has sent a message that it views the wallets of state judges more important than the legal rights of average West Virginians, who are not guaranteed a meaningful appeal of lower court decisions."
Steve Canterbury, administrative director of the state Supreme Court, said the court hasn't weighed in on any legislation this year, including the pay raise bills. But he did offer some background about the figures.
"In 44 states, Supreme Court justices are paid the same or more than governors," he said. "In most of the other states, it's just a small difference. The governor here makes $150,000, so it's appropriate for Supreme Court justices to make the same in keeping with the vast majority of states."
Canterbury said family court judges would get a slightly higher percentage of a raise to "get their salaries up to something that makes sense."
"Our family court judges are the only law school educated judges in the nation who make under $100,000 a year," he said. "They are paid less than prosecutors in West Virginia. They're just poorly paid, and they work really hard."
Canterbury also noted that judges don't get annual raises like other state employees and that they can't do outside work.
"They've received one raise in 12 years," he said. "There are no incremental raises. They can't take other jobs. This is all they're allowed to do.
"Also, I don't think most people realize that judges pay 11 percent of their salaries into their retirement. Other state workers pay 4.5 percent or so. And in the private sector, it's even less. But as a result of that, there is no unfunded liability (for judges). The trust pays for retirees. It's working the way it's supposed to."
Intermediate appellate court
On another front, a state Senate bill to create an intermediate appellate court has been endorsed by the Senate Judiciary committee.
On Feb. 22, the bill was sent to the Senate Finance Committee. The state Supreme Court estimates that the bill would mean an annual budget increase of $5.2 million. It proposes keeping down costs by assigning one justice and two active or retired circuit judges as the new court's rotating members.
The idea of an intermediate appellate court has been a hot topic in recent years. But most court observers thought the Legislature would hold off on such a bill this year after the Court introduced its revised rules for appellate procedure in December.
Heath, from WV CALA, said he's happy the idea is being considered.
"Senate Bill 307, as passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee, would finally give all West Virginians the meaningful right of appeal they deserve," he said. "This legislation would also send a strong message to job providers that it is safe to invest in the Mountain State. Not long ago, West Virginians saw a major company cut its plans for job growth here based, in large part, on the state's lack of a meaningful right of appeal. And several advisory commissions have said an intermediate court would be important for our citizens.
"The costs associated with the creation of an intermediate appeals court are well worth the additional legal rights guaranteed to all West Virginians, and will most likely be offset by the additional jobs and investment created by this important reform measure. Hopefully, members of the full Senate and the House of Delegates will realize the importance of this legislation for the future of our state, and work promptly to pass an intermediate appeals court into law."