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.
This was the primary reason raises were spiked in 2012. The Republican House speaker at the time said he and his colleagues “cannot in good faith allow these raises to occur.” Democratic leaders in the House and Senate concurred, saying their position had nothing to do with the work done by judges. Instead, the timing was just not good.
Another hurdle: State workers, who haven't received across-the-board pay raises since 2006, are sure to holler if judges see their salaries increase. (The last raises for the judiciary came in 2007; two years later, the chief justice at the time asked the compensation board not to recommend raises due to state budget concerns.)
The politics associated with this recommendation are tricky. But sometimes politicians have to make difficult choices for the greater good. “We want to attract and retain high-quality judges,” said Tony Sellars, chairman of the compensation board. “It's imperative to make the compensation system equitable.”
Better pay for Oklahoma judges doesn't guarantee anything. Appellate judges with lifetime appointments have perks not typically found in law firms. Judges are in their jobs by choice. It's vital to remember that the decisions these judges make, regardless of compensation, have consequences that can last for decades.
Not addressing salaries is a sure way to shrink the pool of potential judge candidates who might be willing to pursue public service instead of the generally more lucrative private sector. This isn't good for the rest of us. In this case, politics needs to take a back seat.