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Supreme Court, Bar Association advocate increases

Judicial salaries in Mississippi are the lowest in the region

It is critical for Mississippi judges to receive a pay increase in order to attract and retain judges who can usually make far more in private practice.

A judicial pay increase is strongly supported by the Mississippi Bar Association and the Mississippi Supreme Court.

Inadequate judicial pay is an ongoing problem in courts nationwide, said Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice James W. Smith Jr.

“Statistics clearly reveal that judicial pay has suffered greatly during recent years, to the extent that it affects the impartiality and independence of the judiciary,” Smith said. “We support the attempts by many legislators to improve judicial salaries in Mississippi.”

Mississippi judicial salaries rank 17th out of 17 states in a regional survey conducted by the National Center for State Courts.

The Supreme Court is supportive of a salary structure proposed by Rep. Earle Banks in House Bill 1198, which died in committee during the 2007 session of the Mississippi Legislature. The proposal would have tied the salary of the Chief Justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court to 75% of the salary of the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

In the Mississippi Supreme Court’s budget hearing before members of the Legislature in September, the Court requested a tiered salary structure which would set annual salaries for appellate and trial court judges at levels of 75% of that paid to the corresponding positions in the federal court system. Annual salaries recommended by the Supreme Court include:

— Supreme Court Chief Justice, $159,000

— Supreme Court Presiding Justices, $154,833

— Supreme Court Associate Justices, $152,250

— Court of Appeals Chief Judge, $147,578

— Court of Appeals Associate Judges, $144,827

— Chancery and Circuit Court Judges, $136,000

Larry Houchins, executive director, Mississippi Bar Association, said a judicial pay increase is the bar association’s biggest issue related to politics and the Legislature.

“It has been five or six years since they have had any increase,” Houchins said. “So, we will be working with the Supreme Court and judges conferences and the Legislature to see if can get legislation passed in the ‘08 session to increase judicial pay in Mississippi. If we don’t pay judges sufficient salaries, we aren’t going to attract people out of the private practice of law to go be a judge. Particularly in state courts where pay is lower and they have to run for election, it stands to reason that if you want the best, you need to be competitive in what you pay them.”

The Mississippi Bar Association has also been working with the state’s delegation to Congress on increases in pay for the federal judiciary. Federal judges also need a pay increase.

In Mississippi, the judicial branch of government receives less than 1% of the state budget.

“People don’t realize the judiciary is funded a great deal from the local level,” Houchins said. “That is one of the things we have worked on for years is to have the state step up and realize if it wants an efficient and effective justice system, we need to pay for it.”

Other issues of importance to the Mississippi Bar include a national trend towards a slowdown in the legal employment market. Over the years, legal employment demand tends to go up and down, usually tied to the economy. When the economy is growing, legal employment increases. During declines, legal employment slow down.

Houchins said in Mississippi there is speculation that some employment downturn may be tied to tort reform. Larger firms have cut back because tort reform has reduced the amount of litigation in Mississippi.

There are a lot of lawyers still coming out of law school, and there aren’t always enough jobs for them. “That seems to be a trend right now,” Houchins said.

There hasn’t been a slowdown specifically related to continuing turmoil caused by Hurricane Katrina. Houchins said while the Coast is not back to normal, it has certainly gotten back to a level of business as usual.

“We have not had a large exodus of lawyers from the Coast,” he said. “With the large amount of rebuilding, lawyers will always have to be involved. The Coast from the legal employment standpoint is probably doing okay right now.”

Another trend in the legal field is increasing utilization of technology to help lawyers be more efficient and cost effective. The Mississippi Bar is doing several things to help.

Bar members are allowed access to a free online research service called Casemaker. Houchins said that has been a major hit because instead of having to pay companies like Lexus several hundred dollars a month for basic legal research online, bar members now get it free.

“That’s has been a huge benefit for our members,” Houchins said.

The Mississippi Bar is also launching two new benefits for their members.

• Legal forms online, FormsPass, allows lawyers to get template legal forms. This is particularly helpful for solo practitioners and smaller firms. This isn’t free, but is available for a small monthly fee.

• CoreVault is a company that provides attorneys access to online data backup services that can automatically back up data on a daily, weekly or monthly schedule.

“One thing we learned out of Katrina is that a lot of lawyers were not backing up data in a safe and secure way,” Houchins said. “Backup disks in the office floated out along with Katrina’s storm surge. Now with CoreVault, if the office computer is down, if there is a flood or hurricane, data is available. You can retrieve it and get back up and running. The Internet and broadband access have allowed this size data to be stored somewhere online. You’re okay if the computer crashes. You can go get another computer and you are back in business.”

Another popular benefit is attorney list serves. The most popular is Solonet, which allows solo practitioners to communicate, post questions and provide answers in a list serve format.

“It is great because those folks are all over the state,” Houchins said. “They don’t have a partner down the hall to ask questions. They might need referrals or resources from someone else in the state.”

For more information on the Mississippi Bar Association, call (601) 948-4471, or visit the Web site www.msbar.org.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette4@cox.net.

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