Raises For Judges, Other Officials Would Cost $8 Million By 2017

A controversial proposal to raise the salaries of more than 160 state Superior Court judges by about $24,000 in the next four years has become a forgotten topic in the news since the Dec. 14 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown — but it's been quietly moving forward on schedule.

Days after the massacre, the Connecticut Commission on Judicial Compensation issued a report after months of deliberation, recommending annual raises that bump a Superior Court judge's pay from the current $146,780 to $180,460 by 2017.

The front-line judges' raises were included in the compensation panel's package of proposed increases for judges at all levels (Superior, Appellate and Supreme courts) as well as family support magistrates, workers' compensation commissioners and the state's probate court administrator.

The cumulative cost of the proposals would raise the state budget by $8.3 million when they were fully implemented by 2017, state judicial department records show. The breakdown on that is: The cost of the raises next year would be $1.92 million, and, in each of the following three years until 2017, an added $2.02 million, $2.13 million and $2.24 million.

The package of proposed raises was submitted to the legislature and the governor's budget office in early January, emails between the agencies show — and the judges' salaries are expected to come into play this week as part of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's proposal to the General Assembly on Wednesday for annual budgets of more than $20 billion for each of next two fiscal years.

The proposed raises for judges are lower than those proposed last year by state Supreme Court Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers. She wanted the Superior Court judges' pay to rise about $10,000 higher by 2017 than the compensation commission ultimately recommended. She noted that judges had not received raises since 2007 and had fallen behind inflation.

Budget legislative leaders have expressed doubt that this is the time for judges' raises even at the reduced level — because the state faces a potential $1 billion deficit in the coming year, and now, in the aftermath of the Newtown tragedy, is considering major improvements in the mental health system and other areas that might cost a lot of money.

"The legislature will have to look at it and see, in the context of everything else. I don't want to make predictions ... but we're in tight budget times," said Rep. Gerald Fox, D-Stamford, one of the two co-chairmen of the legislative judiciary committee.

"Some of the points raised by the Chief Justice are of concern. … Obviously, she's interested in attracting a quality individual to be a judge ... and it helps to be able to pay an attractive amount of salary and benefits," said Sen. Eric Coleman, D-Bloomfield, also co-chairman of the judiciary panel.

But, Coleman added: "Obviously, we're in difficult budget times and there are still plenty of people who have been laid off from state service or who are unemployed, and it's hard to explain to them that [about $150,000 a year] is not a sufficient amount of money to pay anybody who's in the employ of the state of Connecticut. ... Under ideal circumstances I would say yes, we probably should increase the salaries of judges. But it's kind of obvious that we're not in ideal budget times."

Although their committee oversees most matters involving the Judicial Branch, Coleman and Fox won't have any more say in the matter than any other House member or senator at this point. That's because the salaries will be submitted as part of a huge budget bill that will be negotiated between the Malloy administration and Democratic legislative leaders who control both chambers at the Capitol.

This past fall, Rogers had asked for salary increases of about 11 percent in the next fiscal year, and then 5.5 percent in each of the following three years until 2017. That would have increased the Superior Court judges' annual salaries to $191,890. Rogers had said there was evidence that judicial salaries were one reason that a growing number of experienced jurists have left the bench in recent years to take private-sector legal jobs.

The compensation commission's raises would be 5.3 percent in each of the next four years. Under that proposed package, salaries of judges on the Appellate Court would rise from $152,637 to $187,661 by 2017. Supreme Court justices' salaries would go from $162,520 to $199,811. Per-diem pay for retired judges who handle Superior Court cases as judge trial referees would rise from $220 a day to $270.

In addition to their pay, judges enjoy more favorable retirement rules than other state workers in significant ways, letting them qualify for big large pensions in a short time. They can retire with lifetime pensions equal to two-thirds of their salaries, plus retirement health coverage, after serving 20 years, no matter their age. The same applies to judges who serve 10 years through age 65 — and to judges who serve through the mandatory judicial retirement age of 70, no matter how long they have served.

Judges also are paid for their commuting mileage to and from work.

Jon Lender is a reporter on The Courant's investigative desk, with a focus on government and politics. Contact him at jlender@courant.com, 860-241-6524, or c/o The Hartford Courant, 285 Broad St., Hartford, CT 06115 and find him on Twitter@jonlender.

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