Lawyers Journal

Fundamental fairness and judicial compensation

"Thank God for Mississippi." My daughter-in-law, Laura, a Masters-level microwave engineer, grew up in Pine Bluff, Ark., and introduced me to this oft-repeated lament.

"When an Arkie says, 'Thank God for Mississippi,' it is an expression of exasperation, an admission that we have once again, despite our best efforts, managed to fail utterly. We're not the bottom of the barrel. We're the dust that has settled on the bottom of the barrel. We're almost envious of Mississippi. When you're rock bottom, you can at least pretend it's because you don't care about the rankings. When you're next to the last it implies that you tried and blew it. Next to last is a spread-eagle bellyflop off a 10-meter board." http://arkansasroadstories.com/literary/tgfm.html.

According to the Memphis Commercial Appeal (April 5, 2012), Mississippi just "dramatically rais[ed] the pay" of its judges and prosecutors. When adjusted for inflation, Mississippi trial court judges' pay was ranked 42nd in the nation. And that was before the recent salary increase. Massachusetts trial court judges' pay ranked 47th in the nation -- five slots lower than Mississippi. One can almost hear them in Jackson and Biloxi, proclaiming, "Thank God for Massachusetts."

Consider the inflation-adjusted salaries of trial court judges in these Southern states:

Tennessee: 2nd
Georgia: 5th
Louisiana: 15th
Kentucky: 20th
West Virginia: 24th
South Carolina: 25th
North Carolina: 30th

Arkansas, the state that made a wild pig its university mascot and where the fans scream "soo eee" at football games, is ranked eighth in the nation for the salaries it pays its trial judges. Here in Massachusetts, we like to call our capital city "The Hub" and to proclaim innate, inherited greatness in comparison to the vast cultural desert that makes up the rest of the country. Massachusetts has the best universities and colleges, the best hospitals, the best professional sports teams, and so on. Nevertheless, we certainly do not treat our judges as "the best." Instead, we treat them as second-class citizens.

Rankings, of course, do not speak directly to the issue that should concern every citizen in the commonwealth; viz., will the salaries offered to our judges and the methods that we adopt to keep those salaries in line with the high cost of living in the state attract and keep the very best lawyers to our courts? The facts on the ground do not create a sense of comfort and well-being.

In its report of June 20, 2008, the Compensation Advisory Board chaired by Paul Guzzi (president and chairman of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce) stated, "The evidence presented to and gathered by the Board makes a compelling case for increasing the salaries of Massachusetts judges." The Compensation Advisory Board also found that judicial salaries (and the method of keeping those salaries current with the extant cost of living) presented obstacles in recruiting the most qualified candidates for the job. It recommended increasing the salaries for Supreme Court justices, Appellate Court judges, and Trial Court judges to $180,097, $166,653, and $160,000, respectively. That recommendation was made four years ago. Nothing happened.

Our judges last received a pay increase in 2006. The salary increase prior to 2006 took place in 1998. That's right; our judges have enjoyed a single pay increase in 14 years. How many ordinary citizens would look favorably on a job where pay increases come about in 14-year cycles and in fits and starts.

The Boston Herald posted a list of salaried state employees on its website entitled "Your Tax Dollars at work: 2009 State Employee Payroll." (www.bostonherald.com/projects/payroll/massachusetts) The data can be rank-ordered, such that one can review the salaries from highest paid to lowest paid. For example, the first two individuals listed are University of Massachusetts employees: Associate Dean Derek Lovley and Chancellor Michael Collins of the Medical School. Their 2008 earnings were listed at $613,065 and $609,470, respectively. I know Dr. Collins and he is worth twice that level of compensation for the unbelievable work that he does for the commonwealth.

However, consider the fact that one must scroll to the 36th page of the rank-ordered list in order to find previous Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall and her salary ($151,000) and to the 43rd page to find then Associate Justice Roderick L. Ireland's salary ($145,000). Community college presidents and state police officials make considerably more than our most senior judges do. I do not denigrate the important work that these other state employees perform for us. But our judges deal with our freedom, safety and well-being, and the proper care of widows and orphans across an incredible spectrum of events and circumstances. Likewise, they literally put their safety and well-being on the line for us every day.

There is a joke often said on the golf course. It goes something like this: "Why is it called 'golf?' Because the best four-letter words were already taken." Work for unfair wages over extended periods is a four-letter word. Our judges did not sign up for this treatment. It is time for the Legislature and the governor to put an end to this injustice, adopt the Compensation Advisory Board's 2008 recommendations, immediately increase judicial salaries to fair and appropriate levels, and depoliticize the method of adjusting salaries going forward.

©2014 Massachusetts Bar Association