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State House passes judicial pay raise legislation

JACKSON — Judges and prosecutors would get pay raises over four years, under a plan the Mississippi House passed yesterday.

Mississippi’s circuit and chancery judges currently make $104,000 a year. The bill would increase their pay in four annual steps to $136,000 a year by 2016. Pay would also increase for district attorneys, appellate judges and county court judges. Salaries of assistant district attorneys and some public defenders would rise too, because they are legally tied to district attorney salaries.

Court filing fees would go up by $40 to pay for the increases. Fines for crimes and traffic tickets would increase $10 to cover prosecutors’ raises.

The bill passed the House 83-37 and now goes to the Senate.

A 2011 survey showed that Mississippi’s judges were the lowest-paid state court judges in the nation. House Judiciary A Committee Chairman Mark Baker, R-Brandon, said the last raise for judges was in 2003.

Lawyers and judges have been pushing for higher salaries for years, noting that others have gotten pay increases since 2003.

“The judiciary branch has been left out of all the pay raises that have occurred since 2003,” Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr. said after the vote. “It was just time.”

Waller said that even with the pay raise, judges would remain below the Southeastern average.

The bill also requires the state Personnel Board to make a recommendation to the Legislature about future pay raises for judges and prosecutors, but Baker said the Legislature would maintain control over salaries.

Baker, himself a lawyer, argued that low salaries were leading people to avoid becoming judges and prosecutors or to consider leaving the posts.

“To get the brightest and best, we’ve got to pay them,” Baker said. “If you don’t pay them, they’re going to stay in private practice.”

Opponents, though, said higher filing fees and fines would burden residents and noted that Mississippians in general have low incomes.

“This is additional money out of the pockets of Mississippians who use the court system,” said Rep. Kelvin Buck, D-Holly Springs. “The reality is most of the people in this state are last in the nation when it comes to income.”

Opponents also questioned whether the judiciary was having trouble attracting qualified people.

“All those judges and prosecutors, they ran for office, so they knew what it paid,” said Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven.

Supporters said that the loss of skilled or experienced judges impose real costs on society, including delays that could lead to higher business expenses, more child abuse and more domestic abuse

“This is easily justifiable and defensible,” said Hugh Keating, a Gulfport lawyer who is president of the Mississippi Bar Association. “It’s long overdue.”

The bill is House Bill 479.

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