Judges press for first pay hike in six years

Connecticut’s judges are continuing to push for their first raise in six years, despite a growing state budget deficit, noting that most state employees will see their compensation rise next fiscal year.

The judges found supporters this week both from the state’s business lobby and its bar association, which argued that a increasingly non-competitive pay would weaken the state’s judiciary in the long-term.

“The question is a question of fairness,” Judge Richard Arnold, president of the Connecticut Judges Association, said Tuesday. “We don’t want to be at the bottom of the barrel,” he said.

Judge Richard Arnold

Judge Richard Arnold: ”…a question of fairness.”

Superior Court judges here earn $146,780 per year. According to an analysis prepared by the National Center for State Courts, that ranks 45th among all states once adjusted for inflation.

Connecticut’s Appellate Court judges earn $152,637, while Supreme Court justices earn $162,520. Rankings adjusted for regional cost-of-living factors were not available for those higher-level courts.

Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers has proposed boosting all judges’ pay by 5.5 percent in each of the next three fiscal years.

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.

But Arnold and others who testified Tuesday before a state panel studying judges’ pay noted that salaries for managers and other executives, both in the Legislative and Executive Branches, rose steadily most years over the past decade.

Much of state government currently is in the second year of a two-year wage freeze. That was one component in a larger wage-and-benefit concession deal ratified by unionized state employees in August 2011. The legislature and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy extended the terms of that agreement to non-union workers as well.

But Arnold told the Commission on Judicial Compensation that judges  also have been subjected to the health care and retirement benefit restrictions in the concession package.

“Judges receive no seat at the bargaining table,” he said, adding that “for judges, the negotiations we have not been a part of, only have a downside.”

Arnold, whose association represents 238 judges, also argued that the job — which already brings a lot of stress — has gotten more demanding over the past decade.

“They don’t tell you about the additional hours spent at home in the evenings and on weekends” writing decisions or jury instructions, he said. “… The media beats on us. The public beats on us.”

Judges face increased responsibilities for monitoring domestic violence and anger management counseling, substance-abuse treatment programs and other services as the state tries to rehabilitate more offenders in communities rather than in prisons.

“You have to be part psychologist, part social worker, part psychiatrist and part spiritual counselor,” Arnold said.

State finances are projected to be running $365 million in deficit in the current fiscal year — a shortfall of about 2 percent of the general fund operating budget.

But the gap grows to 6 percent, falling between $1.1 billion and $1.2 billion, for the next budget, which starts July 1, 2013.

Still, compensation commission members observed that the deficit forecast for the coming fiscal year assumes a more than 4 percent increase in compensation for state workers.

Most unions which approved the compensation package are slated to receive a 3 percent across-the-board salary increase next year. Some employees also may be in line for additional funds as they are promoted or receive added responsibilities.

“We do think it is critically important that we do have a judiciary that is seen as necessary, that is seen as strong and well-functioning,” said John Rathgeber, president of the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, who questioned whether the current pay is suffcient to attract a pool of qualified judges.

Mario Borelli, former president of the Connecticut Hispanic Bar Association, read a statement endorsed by his group as well as by associations representing African-American and Asian-American lawyers.

State judges need adequate pay “to ensure that our government operates effectively and to encourage diverse candidates of the highest caliber,” he said, adding that a survey conducted by the association’s lawyers who decided against pursuing a judicial appointment “cited low pay as one of the main obstacles.”

Attorney Timothy Fisher, who chairs the study panel that must issue a recommendation to the legislature next month, said these concerns were echoed by two recruiters who assist law firms in retaining talent.

They said medium-sized, “high quality” firms that employ 50 attorneys or fewer tend to pay those with 15-20 years of experience — a level comparable for many judge candidates — between $150,000 and $200,000 per year.

For medium-sized companies looking to hire in-house counsel, the pay usually ranges from $200,000 to $250,000, plus bonuses and stock options, Fisher said.

Robert Bello, chairman of the Judicial Selection Commission, said his group –which must pre-approve any candidate the governor nominates to become a judge — currently has authorized more than 220 people for consideration as vacancies are filled.

But Bello said that while this is a qualified, diverse group, it is difficult to say whether low pay is discouraging more people from applying to become a judge — since the commission doesn’t have a way of tracking those who choose not to submit their names.

“We have the best judiciary in the country,” he said, adding that, in his opinion, state judges merit a raise. “There is no question about it.”