"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."
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:
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
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." 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.