Judges want new system for pay raises — after budget crisis is resolved

Connecticut judges say they don’t expect a raise this year given the budget crisis. But after fiscal conditions improve, it’s time for a new system with annual raises that match those given to managers across state government.

The Compensation Commission for Elected State Officers and Judges, a legislative advisory panel, unanimously endorsed the proposal it received Thursday from the Judicial Branch and from the Connecticut Judges Association.

Guaranteeing judges the same percentage pay hike received the prior year by Executive Branch managers “would ensure that the judges receive the same equitable pay arrangements as others in state government,” Judge Barbara A. Quinn, the chief court administrator, told the commission.

Both Judge Theodore Tyma, who is president of the 200-member judges’ association, and Quinn, said a new system is necessary to ensure compensation remains competitive and that Connecticut can attract the highest-quality jurists.

State judges, whose pay last increased in 2007, currently have no fixed schedule or system for raises, which are granted at the discretion of the General Assembly.

Quinn submitted an analysis prepared by the National Center for State Courts that showed Superior Court judges here, who earn $146,780 per year, rank 12th highest among all states and the District of Columbia. But once that pay is adjusted to reflect Connecticut’s higher cost of living, the ranking falls to 38th.

Connecticut’s Appellate Court judges, who earn $152,637, rank 11th nationwide, while Supreme Court justices, who earn $162,520, rank 16th. Rankings adjusted for cost-of-living factors were not available for those courts.

Salaries for commissioners in the executive branch generally are in a range similar to that of judges’ pay.

Bloomfield lawyer Lewis B. Rome, chairman of the commission, said the change is necessary for reasons more essential than maintaining competitive pay.

“This is a not a financial decision. This is a good policy decision,” he said, adding judicial compensation needs to be removed from the legislative political arena. “Every year somebody gets angry,” he said. “There are members of both caucuses, annually, who just don’t want to talk about judges. … We want to get that off the table.”

Former House Speaker Richard J. Balducci, a Deep River Democrat who also serves on the commission, suggested modifying the proposal to delay any changes to compensation rules until 2013 or later – and presumably after the $3.7 billion deficit built into the upcoming budget is resolved.

Balducci acknowledged that judges potentially could miss an opportunity for a raise if they don’t pursue the policy change now. But given that a similar proposal bogged down in the legislature two years ago, it might be smarter to aim two years down the road and eliminate any perception that any raise is expected in the near future.

“Otherwise we could be here two years from now discussing the same proposal again,” he added.

But Rome disagreed, arguing it was essential to change the system now. “We’ve made a reasonable suggestion,” he said. “I believe it is our responsibility, if we believe it is the right thing” to pursue it now.

After the 11-member commission, which is composed of appointees from past governors and current legislative leaders, unanimously recommended changing the compensation system now, Rome appointed Balducci to try to negotiate the proposal with legislative leaders.

That task could be difficult given the reaction Thursday of two leaders from the legislature’s Judiciary Committee, the panel which will receive the recommendation.

Both Sen. Eric Coleman, D-Bloomfield, who co-chairs the committee, and John A. Kissel of Enfield, the ranking GOP senator on Judiciary, said they believe the legislature should retain full discretion to award judicial raises as it deems appropriate.

“I believe the judges are very valuable to our civil and criminal justice system and they are deserving of an increase in compensation,” Coleman said. “But I don’t think that proposal is going to make much progress.”

“I don’t see how I could support that right now,” Kissel said. “People are making sacrifices. They are concerned about their job security. In many respects, judges have one of the most secure jobs in state government.”

Judges serve an eight-year term, Kissel noted. Their salaries are “generous” regardless of comparisons with other states, he said, adding that judicial candidates are well aware of the advantages and disadvantages of the job beforehand. “These are people who have vigorously pursued the job,” he said.