The state pays its judges second lowest salaries among the 50 states, according to a 2013 report compiled by the National Center for State Courts.
By Scott Dolan firstname.lastname@example.org
Maine’s judges are among the lowest paid in the country. The proposal would increase the annual salary for the 51 trial court judges in the District and Superior courts by more than $12,000, from $115,346 to $127,629.
The legislation also would increase the salaries of the chiefs of the District and Superior courts, from $120,510 to $133,374 a year. It would boost the salaries of the six associate justices of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court from $123,080 to $136,214, and give Chief Justice Leigh Saufley a raise from $142,298 to $157,475.
The Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, which will review the proposal in a work session on Jan. 14, put off its decision when the bill came up for consideration last spring because of monetary issues, said Linda Valentino, D-Saco, the committee’s Senate chair, who introduced the bill on behalf of the state’s Judiciary Compensation Commission.
“We didn’t want this to just die on the table,” Valentino said this week.
“We thought it was an important enough issue to bring it back in again.”
Maine’s judges last got a raise by statute in the 1998-99 fiscal year. They have received cost-of-living pay increases in some years since then, including this year. Trial court judges in 1998-99 had a base salary of $90,000.
Saufley and Joshua Tardy, chairman of the Judicial Compensation Commission, appeared before the Judiciary Committee at a public hearing in April to support Valentino’s bill. They testified that salary increases are needed to attract highly qualified attorneys to the bench, provide a diverse group of judicial applicants, retain current judges and avoid demoralization.
“We’re not getting a diversified enough bench. They are all coming from the same background, the same law firms, the same government positions,” said Valentino, echoing points made by Saufley and Tardy in their testimony. “We’re 49th out of 50 states. Even New Hampshire is paying over $25,000 more, and they have pretty much the same caseload as we do in Maine.”
About 10,000 other state employees, including those in the Judicial Branch, have just received their first raise in about five years, 1 percent, through a cost-of-living pay adjustment in September. The state lifted its long-imposed pay freeze in July, the start of the current fiscal year.
State workers last received a step increase in pay in January 2009, effectively getting 4 percent raises, depending on their dates of hire.
Before that, workers in various classifications got raises at different times depending on their union’s contracts, said David Heidrich Jr., a spokesman for the state’s Department of Administrative and Financial Services.
Maine ranks 49th among the 50 states for salaries paid to trial court judges. It also ranked 49th when those salaries were adjusted for the cost of living in each state in the most recent data compiled by the National Center for State Courts, in January 2013.
Illinois pays its trial court judges the most, $182,429 a year, or $171,637 when adjusted for cost of living. New Mexico pays the least, $111,631 a year, or $109,028 when adjusted for cost of living.
The nation’s average salary for a judge is $139,166, according to the National Center for State Courts’ report. At the time of the report, Maine paid its trial judges $111,969 a year, or $96,537 when adjusted for the cost of living.
Rep. Jarrod Crockett of Bethel, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, agreed with Valentino’s proposal but said Tuesday that he can’t support increasing judges’ six-figure salaries if there isn’t enough money in the budget for the state’s lesser-paid employees.
“If I find out that state employees are getting a cut and we’re looking at giving judges raises, that would be crazy,” said Crockett, an attorney.
He acknowledged that attorneys with law school debts and young families may be deterred from applying to become judges if they can earn more in private practice. That often means that lawyers don’t reach the bench until they are in their 50s or 60s.
“Our judiciary is way underfunded compared to other states,” Crockett said. “I try to keep an open mind going into these work sessions because there is no question these judges need better compensation.”
For the bill to pass, it will have to win support from the Judiciary Committee and the full House and Senate, and get funding approval from the Appropriations Committee.
Scott Dolan can be contacted at 791-6304 or at:
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