Saturday, April 13, 2024

LaRose: Louisiana judges enjoy the catbird seat when it comes to pay raises

by BIZ Magazine

A panel that regularly evaluates the salaries of Louisiana judges has recommended the state legislature boost their pay, even though they also received a boost in the most recent state budget. 

The Judiciary Compensation Commission endorsed the increase when it met Dec. 5 after a presentation from economist Loren Scott showed pay for Louisiana judges, who number about 370, hasn’t kept up with inflation. The commission meets biennially and can suggest lawmakers increase judges’ pay ahead of their regular sessions in even number years.

Technically, every employee that gets a paycheck or a portion of their pay from the state can be provided a raise annually, but the judiciary is the only segment that has a panel baked into state law to regularly review its compensation.

Ultimately, judges’ salaries aren’t collectively a significant portion of the state budget. Thus, there usually isn’t much opposition to their pay bumps nor much organized opposition. Other professions funded through the state budget, such as teachers and law enforcement, are typically busy enough lobbying for their own increases to put up any resistance.

“This is just pure speculation, but one reason that (judges) do get reviewed rather regularly is that it’s not a huge, big-ticket item,” said Jan Moller, executive director of the Louisiana Budget Project.

The structure in place to evaluate and elevate, when deemed warranted (it always has been), remuneration for judges stands out as unique — to the point where one could easily argue the proverbial deck is politically stacked in their favor.

The makeup of the 15-member Judiciary Compensation Commission is as follows:

  • one appointee of the governor;
  • four appointees of the Louisiana Senate president;
  • four appointees of the state House Speaker;
  • two appointees of the Louisiana Supreme Court chief justice; and
  • one appointee each from the Louisiana District Judges Association, the Conference of the Courts of Appeal, the Louisiana City Judges Association and the Louisiana State Bar Association.

All appointees are subject to state Senate approval. To ensure the commission isn’t composed solely of lawyers and judges, two members each that the Senate president and House speaker appoint and one from the Louisiana Supreme Court chief justice must be non-attorneys and can’t hold seats in the legislature.

Even then, lawyers and judges could conceivably hold a 10-5 edge on the commission. It’s also within the realm of possibilities that a lawyer who sits on the panel could appear before a judge who may or may not be pleased with decisions they’ve made regarding compensation. That perception alone should be cause for concern among the judiciary.

Current average salaries for Louisiana judges range from $173,788 for those who preside over lower courts to $193,227 for state Supreme Court justices. That’s more than neighboring Mississippi ($153,000-$173,800), a state just as poor as Louisiana, and Texas ($154,000-$184.800), where the greater number of judges likely pulls down the average.  

Louisiana judicial pay even holds up well against the Southern average ($179,383-$192,282), a figure that uses the Census Bureau’s 16-state regional definition and includes Maryland, Delaware and Virginia. Our state Supreme Court justices make more than the regional rate, and salaries are just 3% less for both our appellate and general trial court judges.

Compared with national averages, the difference in Louisiana ranges from 1.5% to 6% less among the three levels. 

It’s also worth noting the annual mean wage for Louisiana lawyers is $127,150 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Some commission members suggested Louisiana needs to provide more attractive pay for judges if it wants to lure the best candidates from the higher-paying private sector.

A point made briefly during last week’s Judicial Compensation Commission meeting was that the regional salary numbers offer only a window for comparison. Unlike teachers and other professions, lawyers and judges don’t readily move to neighboring states unless they’re already licensed to practice there. 

So how much more would Louisiana judges make under the raise recommendations the commission approved? 

Scott, the economist who’s performed the judicial pay study for several years, provided three options for the panel to consider: 

  • an adjustment to realign Louisiana judges’ pay with their Southern peers; 
  • one that brings them up to national averages; and 
  • an initial increase to restore and maintain their purchasing power compared with rates from 1983 followed by three years of smaller pay bumps tied to the Consumer Price Index.     

For trial, appellate and Louisiana Supreme Court judges, the commission chose the third option with a slight tweak. Instead of linking ensuing increases to the Consumer Price Index, the commission approved a flat 4% annual raise after the “catch-up” increase in fiscal 2025. 

Keep in mind $2.5 million was placed in the current fiscal year budget to provide a raise for state and city judges. Back in 2019, the Louisiana Legislature approved a series of 2.5% annual raises for the judiciary, totalling 12.5% through 2023 and costing the state almost $28 million over the four-year period.   

On a percentage basis, Scott noted, the proposed pay hikes the commission approved last week for judges are far less than what other public sector employees have seen over the decades. For example, he pointed out public school teachers averaged $13,105 in 1979 and are now paid $54,419 annually — a 318% increase. Classified state employees have seen a comparable percentage increase, as have employees in the manufacturing sector, he added.    

No one on the commission mentioned the one-time $2,000 stipend lawmakers approved for teachers earlier this year. Gov. John Bel Edwards had sought a permanent $3,000 raise that the legislature rejected. 

“Once again, teachers and school employees are forced to beg for what they deserve,” Louisiana Federation of Teachers President Larry Carter said in a release at the time. “This year, legislators had a historic surplus and a unique opportunity to invest in our teachers, school employees, and students, now and into the future.”

Teachers obviously have a much bigger impact on the state budget than what judges do, but the disparities need to be highlighted if Scott’s going to use educators as a point of reference when justifying an increase for the judiciary.

According to the Public Affairs Research Council, public school teachers in Louisiana have received $3,300 in salary hikes from state lawmakers and the governor since 2019. The raise proposed for lower court judges next year alone would more than quadruple that figure. And even with this year’s improvement, Louisiana teachers didn’t make up ground on the national average.

Perhaps a more glaring perception issue for the judiciary are the proposed pay raises for members who sit on the state Board of Tax Appeals. Two judges are part of the three-person panel that handles disputes involving state taxes.

Technically, the board seats are part-time jobs, and its judges have been paid $17,550 annually since 2013. The Judiciary Compensation Commission approved an increase schedule last week that calls for a nearly $39,000 pay bump — that’s a 122% adjustment right off the bat. Plus, they would see annual raises of roughly $1,200 over the next three years.

If the judges’ 2013 rate was adjusted for inflation, it would only come to just over $23,000 for this year based on Consumer Price Index (CPI) figures from the federal government as of Nov. 14.

Remember, state lawmakers killed their own proposed pay raise this spring when they were seeking to update the $16,800 annual figure that hadn’t been changed since 1980. A CPI-adjusted figure would have moved their compensation past $62,000 a year. The only version of the increase that gained some traction placed the number below $40,000 — a figure equal to 75% of the state’s median family income — and even that was doomed.

We’ll have to wait and see if the 144 legislators are willing to be equally frugal or politically expedient when it comes to what state judges are paid.

Greg LaRose is editor of the Louisiana Illuminator and has covered news in the state for more than 30 years.

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