Raise recommendation raises political dilemma

By Jo Mathis

Legal News

If you could receive a pay raise after a decade-long freeze, would you turn it down?

That's what the Michigan Supreme Court seems to be doing in its reaction to a 3 percent raise recommended by the State Officers Compensation Commission.

"The judges of Michigan appreciate that the State Officers Compensation Commission has recognized that a freeze on judicial compensation for over a decade is not good public policy," read the statement released by the court. "Our priority continues to be to make the justice system right-sized, smarter, more user-friendly and more accountable. We appreciate the recommendation for an increase in compensation."

The statement went on: "Given the continued budgetary situation of the state, however, we would understand if the legislature chose not to increase judicial salaries at this time.

"We are confident that as Michigan's recovery progresses, the issue will be revisited."

The recommended raise -- which requires approval of the state legislature -- would boost Michigan Supreme Court justices' salaries to $169,548 in 2013 and $174,634 in 2014, while simultaneously lifting the salaries of lower court judges.

Bloomfield Hills attorney David Fink, who was appointed last summer to the seven-member SOCC, believes that the Supreme Court's response does not fully reflect how most judges feel about their long pay freeze.

"While most judges are quick to agree that they are undercompensated, in the current political environment, I don't think any elected judge will come forward to say they should get a raise," said Fink, founder/principal of Fink + Associates Law.

Insisting that Michigan judges are underpaid, Fink said the Consumer Price Index has increased by about 20 percent since 2002, as have non-elected state employee salaries, while the justices' pay has remained the same.

"If we want to attract the best attorneys to serve in our judiciary, we need to compensate them appropriately," he said. "Today, any law school graduate can obtain a first year associate position that pays more than our trial court judges are paid. Some law graduates start out making more than our Supreme Court justices. "

Fink worries that eventually the only attorneys who can afford to become state court judges will be the very wealthy who don't need to make significant income, and the unsuccessful who can't do better in private practice.

Although the recommendation would have no impact upon the state's federal judges, it recognizes the "compensation crisis" that's impacting both state and federal judges across the nation, said U.S. District Court Chief Judge Gerald E. Rosen, Eastern District of Michigan.

"We certainly sympathize with our state colleagues, and hope they are successful in securing a compensation increase," Rosen said.

Noting that federal judges have suffered a decrease in compensation of more than 25 percent as against the cost of living since the last pay raise passed by Congress in 1989, he said in real terms, this means that federal judges now lose more than $60,000 per year compared to what they would be making had they simply received the same cost-of-living increases every other federal employee has received.

"As a result, we are experiencing the loss of some of our most experienced and respected federal jurists in our nation," Rosen said.

"This is a serious problem for our judicial system, and for the quality of justice in our nation."

The SOCC also recommended pay freezes for the governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state and legislators, all of whom took a 10 percent cut in 2011.

Elected officials got significant raises in 2001, when the governor's salary, for instance, went from $151,245 to $172,000.

The SOCC recommends that the governor continue to earn $159,300; lieutenant governor, $111,510; legislator, $71,685; attorney general, $112,410; and secretary of state, $112,410.

Fink believes legislators are adequately paid. A state legislator must simply meet a minimum age to qualify for the job, he said, while judges must be trained attorneys, members of the State Bar, and in most instances have extensive experience practicing law.

Also, he said, while legislators have term limits, most judges taking the bench intend to remain for the rest of their careers.

Fink also pointed out that, even with increases of 3 percent in 2013 and 3 percent in 2014, the salaries of Supreme Court Justices would still have increased between the years of 2000 and 2014 by a smaller percentage than the pay for state legislators.

The House of Representatives will act first on the SOCC's recommendation.

Initial indications from the House suggest the raises will not be accepted, Fink said.

"Some people have been saying that this proposed increase sends the wrong message because of our state's fiscal problems," said Fink.

"I think it sends exactly the right message, that we believe in justice and we want the best quality judges making the critical decisions that affect each of us every day.

"Despite our difficult economic times, we shouldn't be penny-wise, and pound-foolish," he went on to say.

"The decisions our judges make are simply too important for us to under-compensate the judiciary."

If the increase is not adopted by the legislators, no judge can receive a pay increase before 2015 because the next time the SOCC meets will be in 2013 to decide on salaries for 2015.

Published: Mon, Jun 27, 2011