Senate blocks effort to remove judges’ pay from political debates

The Senate overwhelmingly stymied a bid Thursday by Connecticut’s judges to remove their salaries from political debate, dramatically scaling back a measure creating a new judicial compensation study panel.

The bill, which now heads to the House of Representatives, still would ensure that any pay raises the panel endorses for judges would be included in the governor’s annual budget proposal sent to the legislature.

But under an earlier version of the measure, any raises recommended by the panel would have taken effect automatically — unless the legislature had acted to reject them.

Sen. Eric Coleman, D-Bloomfield, co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said that while he appreciates judges’ concerns about compensation, senators agreed that voting on judicial salaries is an important legislative responsibility.

“It was important to me, and it was important to many other senators on both sides of the aisle,” he said.

“We have a unique role as a legislature to control the power of the purse,” said Sen. John A. Kissel of Enfield, the ranking Republican senator on the Judiciary Committee. “When it comes to the budget, it is our job to prioritize.”

After working with the Judicial Branch, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s office proposed a bill that would have created 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 have recommended 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 raises proposed by the group would have taken effect in July of the same year they were recommended — unless lawmakers took specific action to reject or otherwise change them.

The Senate amendment adopted Thursday retains the commission, adds two additional seats for legislative leaders but scraps the automatic approval in the absence of legislative action. In its place, it stipulates that the study panel’s proposals must be forwarded to the governor’s budget office and to the General Assembly for review.

“The amendment was the result of collaboration with the governor’s office,” Malloy spokesman Andrew Doba said Thursday. “The Governor fully supports the bill as amended, and thanks the legislators who worked with his office and the Judicial Branch to arrive at a workable and substantial process for considering judicial compensation questions.”

“The bill creates a fair, objective and transparent process by which judges’ salaries may be periodically reviewed,” Chief Justice Chase Rogers wrote in a statement Thursday. “The bill is now in the House of Representatives and I am hopeful that it will be acted upon favorably. “

State judges, whose pay last increased in 2007 with a 5.5 percent bump, have no fixed schedule or system for raises, which are granted at the discretion of the General Assembly.

Connecticut’s judges have been arguing since then that their salaries lag behind those of attorneys in the private sector and those of judges in other states.

The legislature already receives annual recommendations on compensation for judges, legislators and the governor and other constitutional officers from the Commission on Compensation for Elected State Officials and Judges. That panel has authority only to make recommendations. And critics argue that recommendations for pay increases routinely are set aside for political reasons, particularly during tough fiscal times.

An analysis prepared by the National Center for State Courts showed that 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.

Coleman said he appreciates Rogers’ “legitimate advocacy on behalf of the Judicial Branch” and noted that Connecticut’s compensation does rank behind that of most other states.

But the Bloomfield senator added that many legislators also note there are more than 200 people who applied to the state’s Judicial Selection Commission and have been approved for potential appointment to the bench.

“There seems to be no shortage of people interested in becoming judges,” he said.