Malloy offers plan to shield judges’ salaries from political debates

Connecticut's judges, who have been trying for the last five years to remove their salaries from the political arena, might have their best chance to do so now through legislation offered by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.

Although the governor's bill still allows legislators to block raises, a new, appointed Commission on Judicial Compensation would have chief responsibility for ordering pay increases.

"The objective under this law is to de-politicize the manner in which judicial compensation is considered by the legislature," said Andrew J. McDonald, the governor's general counsel.

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

The legislature receives an annual report from the Commission on Compensation for Elected State Officials and Judges. The compensation panel has authority only to make recommendations. And critics argue that recommendations for pay hikes routinely are set aside for political reasons, particularly during tough fiscal times.

A former state senator, McDonald said legislators often link consideration of judicial pay with that of their own. And legislators often are wary of any talk of increasing their compensation. Under the current system, "the ability to fairly analyze the merits of the judicial pay structure is minimized," he said, adding that the governor's measure allows for "a more reasoned and dispassionate analysis."

The last pay increases for judges were approved in 2004. That measure ordered annual increases of 5.5 percent effective Jan. 1 of 2005, 2006 and 2007. Legislative pay last increased in 2001.

Judge Barbara Quinn, the chief court administrator, and her predecessor, Judge William Lavery, have argued in recent years that judicial compensation is not competitive with that offered in other states nor with the pay attorneys can earn in the private sector.

An analysis prepared by the National Center for State Courts showed Connecticut's annual pay for Superior Court judges, $146,780, ranked 14th highest among all states at the start of this fiscsal year. But once that pay was adjusted to reflect Connecticut's relatively high cost of living, the ranking fell to 45th.

The $152,637 annual salary for Connecticut's Appellate Court judges ranked 11th nationwide and the $162,520 yearly pay for Supreme Court justices was 17th highest. Rankings adjusted for regional cost-of-living factors were not available for those higher-level courts.

Malloy's bill would create a nine-member commission, appointed by the governor, legislative leaders and the chief justice, with the sole job of addressing judicial compensation.

Starting in January 2013 and every four years thereafter, the panel would recommend compensation levels for judges and magistrates after weighing: inflation and other economic factors; judicial compensation in other states and in the federal courts; earnings by attorneys in the public and private sectors; compensation for nonjudicial state employees; and the state's overall fiscal situation.

Any recommended compensation changes would take effect in July of the same year they were offered, unless the legislature acts to reject them, according to the governor's bill.

Rep. Gerald M. Fox III, D-Stamford, co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said last week that while his panel hasn't discussed the bill yet, his initial impression is positive. "There really is no other mechanism now to address judges' salaries except for a legislative change," he said. "Judges don't like to have to advocate for additional salary."

"The Judicial Branch strongly supports Senate Bill 31 and appreciates the governor's decision to propose it," Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers said last week. "I look forward to testifying before the Judiciary Committee on this important bill."

The governor's proposal has some parallels with how many salary increases take effect for unionized state employees. Many union contracts are settled with arbitration awards, which take effect unless the legislature acts to reject them.

This system has drawn criticism in recent years from the Republican minorities in the state House and Senate, who argue that legislators should have to go on record to either approve or reject all arbitration awards.

Rep. John W. Hetherington of New Canaan, ranking House Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said that regardless of how legislators' feel about the level of judicial compensation -- or whether political concerns influence the issue -- raises shouldn't take effect without legislative action.

"All of the judges I know more than earn their salary," he said. "I really don't think judicial pay has been embroiled in politics. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't meet our responsibilities. Generally, I think the legislature ought to do its job, even when it comes down to setting salaries."