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Bill proposing incremental judicial pay raises will be filed next week

Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Waller told a meeting of the Capital Area Bar Association Tuesday that legislation to implement pay raises for trial and appellate judges will be introduced this session, probably sometime next week.

It’s the second session in a row the legislation has arrived at the Capitol. It died last year. Judges haven’t received a raise since 2003.

The measure has already gained the endorsement of a handful of major business groups, including the Mississippi Economic Council and the Gulf Coast Business Council.

Its intent is to get Mississippi judges off the bottom of the pay scale. According to the National Center for State Courts, the southeastern average for trial judge pay is $138,901. In Mississippi, trial judges are paid $104,170. Mississippi Court of Appeals judges are paid $105,050 annually; state Supreme Court judges earn $112,530. Trial and appellate court judges in Alabama, Louisiana and Tennessee earn salaries that average about 30 percent more than that. Alabama tops that list, with its supreme court judges pulling in $180,839, and trial judges making $158,134.

Like it would have last year, the legislation will raise judicial salaries incrementally, starting Jan. 1, 2013, and ending on that same date in 2016. By then, associate justices on the Supreme Court would make $152,250 (up from $112,530 now). Circuit and chancery judges salaries would increase from $104,170 now, to $136,000. The bill would also require the State Personnel Board to review judicial salaries on Nov. 1, 2017, and every four years after that. The Legislature, starting in 2019, would set judicial salaries based on the recommendations of the State Personnel Board.

Increases in civil filing and appellate court docket fees would fund the raises. Civil filing fees in circuit court are currently $121. In chancery court, they’re $108. Each would increase $40. Docket fees for the Mississippi Supreme Court would double, from $100 to $200. Under that format, no money from the state’s general fund would be used.

Former ninth district circuit judge Frank Vollor joined Waller on the panel, and said he left the bench after 20 years strictly for economic reasons. He is now in private practice.

“We expect a lot out of our judges, and we need to pay them adequately,” he said.

Debate during the 2011 session included the concern some lawmakers had over the constitutionality of the bill. The state’s Constitution prohibits changes in pay for judges during their terms. Waller said that could be circumvented by giving judges additional duties. This legislation will do that, he said, by requiring members of the Supreme Court and chancery and circuit judges to promote judicial education in schools, drug courts, electronic filing and management systems developed by the Mississippi Administrative Office of Courts.

As chief justice, Waller’s pay is not tied to the section of the Constitution that prohibits changes in pay during judicial terms. The same goes for goes for members of the Court of Appeals.

“This is a small step toward capturing judicial independence,” Waller told the crowd at the Capital Club. “If we don’t capture (revenue generated by filing fees), somebody else will, and it probably won’t be the judiciary.”

Waller said in an interview after the presentation that he expects some opposition at the Capitol, but hopes the fact that user fees would fund the raises would be enough to get it to Gov. Phil Bryant’s desk.

House Judiciary A Chairman Rep. Mark Baker, R-Brandon, has already indicated he supports it. Baker’s counterpart in the Senate, Vicksburg Republican Briggs Hopson, has done the same.

“These are hard times, and I understand that,” Waller told reporters. “There’s a lot of needs. In recognition of that, we’ve chosen a funding model that won’t impact the general fund. We think that’s the fairest way to go about it.”

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