On Oklahoma judicial pay issue, politics needs to take back seat

The Oklahoman Editorial Published: October 7, 2013

THE last time lawmakers were asked to give the state's judges a raise, in 2012, leaders from both sides of the aisle joined to say, “It's not happening!” It was a rare and hearty display of bipartisanship. Could the same happen in 2014?

The Board on Judicial Compensation is recommending 12 percent pay raises for the men and women who serve as judges on Oklahoma's district courts, criminal and civil appeals courts, and the state Supreme Court.

The board makes some compelling arguments, chiefly that the work done by the courts has a significant impact on Oklahomans, and judges' pay has to be in a range that attracts and keeps attorneys who can make much more in the private sector.

The state's district court judges, whose caseloads leave them to do much of the court system's heavy lifting, earn $124,000 annually. That's not chopped liver, certainly. But some attorneys can earn that in this part of the country in their first year out of law school. On the coasts, they can earn much more.

Currently, judges' annual salaries range from $105,000 for special district judges to $147,000 for the chief justice of the Oklahoma Supreme Court. According to the National Center for State Courts, salaries here for general jurisdiction judges and supreme court justices rank in the bottom 10 nationally. Salaries for intermediate appellate judges rank 34th.

The recommendation by the compensation board would bump the salary range to $117,659 at the low end to $164,640 for the chief justice. This is reasonable.

However, it also presents a ticklish political problem for legislators because the salaries of the governor, lieutenant governor and Oklahoma's 10 other statewide elected officials are tied to the judicial raises. That means a bump in pay for the state's chief justice would mean the same for Gov. Mary Fallin if she were to win re-election, and so on.

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