Asked and Answered: Chad C. Schmucker on judges' salaries

By Steve Thorpe

Legal News

Michigan's judges have not had a raise since 2002 while inflation has increased by nearly 20 percent over the same period. It's not unheard of for new associates at larger firms to take home salaries exceeding those of judges. The State Officers Compensation Commission is the panel tasked with setting salaries for Michigan's governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general, legislators and Supreme Court justices. But a constitutional amendment in 2002 now requires approval of both houses of the state Legislature before any raise can become effective. Chad C. Schmucker is State Court Administrator of Michigan and a former Circuit Court judge for the 4th Circuit Court.

Thorpe: How have judicial salaries in Michigan fared in the last decade in comparison to other professional compensation?

Schmucker: The salaries for the best and the brightest in private practice have increased to the point where some new law grads make more than a Michigan trial judge who's been on the bench for 30 years. But there are other comparisons that highlight the need for Michigan judges to get a raise. During the 11 years that Michigan trial judges have gone without a raise, judges in the other states have received a total of 250 raises. In Michigan, non-union state employees received several raises amounting to a 23 percent increase over the same period. And the Consumer Price Index has increased by over 25 percent over that time.

Thorpe: What factors are blocking the measure in the legislature?

Schmucker: I think the Legislature is, understandably, going to be very careful about increasing salaries for anyone in state government. But I believe a raise for state trial court judges is long overdue. If the Legislature does approve an increase, the first raise would not take effect until 2015, meaning that Michigan trial judges' compensation would have been frozen for 13 years.

Thorpe: The Supreme Court released a statement that "a freeze on judicial compensation for over a decade is not good public policy," and the State Bar announced that "the court system will be undermined if judicial pay is allowed to stagnate indefinitely." But both organizations chose not to lobby the lawmakers on the issue. Why might that be?

Schmucker: We did not lobby last time because of the state's fiscal crisis. But we are taking a different approach now. Without presuming to speak for the State Bar, I can say that the goal is to increase trial judges' salaries. The Supreme Court is not seeking a raise for the justices. The reality is that, by statute, the compensation for all state judges -- Court of Appeals, circuit, probate, and district -- is based on the salary for justices.

Thorpe: The salary for all Michigan judges is tied to the salary of the Supreme Court justices. How did that policy come to be?

Schmucker: Probably the thinking was that it was appropriate to relate judicial salaries to each other, rather than to some other measure.

Thorpe: How does an underpaid judiciary affect the state of Michigan?

Schmucker: What we want to avoid is a situation where the best and brightest attorneys don't seek judicial office, or they leave it, because they can make a better living elsewhere. That has been a problem for the federal bench and the impetus for Chief Justice John Roberts to seek raises for U.S. District Court judges.

Thorpe: What's the next step?

Schmucker: I am explaining our position to both SOCC and the Legislature. I believe SOCC will recommend a raise. Most observers believe a 13-year pay freeze is too long and I hope the Legislature agrees.

Published: Tue, May 28, 2013