The director of state courts and the state Supreme Court chief justice are asking the governor and Legislature to give judges a 16 percent raise during the next budget cycle. The request is an attempt to provide equity with other Wisconsin officials, government lawyers and trial judges in the Midwest.
“If we look at any of those categories, we are behind,” A. John Voelker, director of state courts, told the Wisconsin Law Journal. “We need some type of catch-up pay, in our view, in order to be equitable with those three groups.”
The proposal would bring Circuit Court judges’ salaries from $110,250 to approximately $127,800. It seeks to spread the increase out, asking for 2½ percent in the first part of the biennium (August 2005), then 5½ percent (January 2006), and 7½ percent (August 2006), which comes out to $1.7 million in the first year of the biennium and $5.2 million in the second year. On an annual basis, it would cost $5.5 million to maintain this raise.
Voelker and Chief Justice Shirley S. Abrahamson are concerned about the ability to hold onto high quality judges who could go elsewhere and make more money. Long term, they also are concerned about the ability to recruit quality candidates for the judiciary.
Right now, 19 percent of the judiciary is eligible for retirement, Voelker explained, noting that the figures will grow to 51 percent in the next five years. Ten years from now, 81 percent of the current judiciary will be eligible to retire. That does not mean everyone who is eligible will seek retirement, but the director of state courts is concerned that if pay doesn’t increase, it will be a growing factor in those decisions.
“I think it’s worth talking about even though the finances of the state are tight because it’s an institutional issue,” Voelker said.
With a salary of $110,250 annually, Circuit Court judges in Wisconsin currently make less than the trial court judges in five Midwestern states. Judges in Iowa earn $112,010; in Minnesota, $118,141; in Indiana, $121,122; in Michigan, $139,919; and in Illinois, $145,704, according to a survey by the Office of State Employment Relations. The average trial judge salary of those five Midwestern states is $127,379.
This is the first time Wisconsin has ranked the lowest among those states for trial judge salaries, Voelker said. Nationally, Wisconsin trial judges also are losing ground with their colleagues. In 2003, their salaries ranked 28th nationwide, down from 22nd in 1998.
Voelker said that other state officials have salaries ranked much higher among their national peers. He noted an incongruity when the state attorney general’s salary ranks 7th in the nation, state legislators’ pay ranks 9th and the governor’s salary ranks 12th.
The last two budget cycles have contributed to the slide. During the current budget, Wisconsin judges received a 1 percent raise in the second half of the biennium along with an additional 10 cents per hour. That equated to an additional .2 percent increase for a total raise of 1.2 percent during the two-year period. During the previous biennium, judges received a 3 percent raise.
Among other government lawyers and judges, the Circuit Court judges fall behind Milwaukee Municipal Judges, paid $122,197; State Public Defender Nick Chiarkis, $123,451; State Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager, $127,869; Milwaukee City Attorney Grant Langley, $135,376; and the top 20 University of Wisconsin law professors who average $141,107 annually.
Abrahamson described the issue as a matter of equity for the judges.
Failing to maintain an equitable situation will potentially affect morale. She noted a frustration coming from judges as they see their salaries failing to keep pace with other people in government.
“There’s a sense of fairness,” she said. “People don’t want to think they are being treated unfairly. They will be willing to do the job for less money than they might otherwise make if they think that it is a fair salary.”
“I don’t think we’re ever going to pay the same salary
as the partners at Foley & Lardner,” Voelker said. “But an attorney at any stage of his career should at least be able to look at becoming a judge as a viable option.”
A Wisconsin Law Journal survey of the state’s largest firms, which will be featured in this month’s Top Firms section (watch for the Dec. 22, 2004 issue), indicates that Foley’s starting associates make between $105,000 and $125,000 depending on their areas of practice. At Quarles & Brady, starting associates make $105,000 with the potential for up to $24,000 in bonuses.
“I would like to think our judges are at least as good as the best people one year out of law school,” Voelker said.
He acknowledged that pay is not the only reason lawyers choose to be judges. There are intangibles such as the desire to engage in public service or the prestige of the position that attract people to the judiciary. However, if people feel they are making a financial sacrifice to take the position, it might eliminate some of the quality applicants or candidates seeking the bench, he said.
“Even if I knew there was absolutely no money, this discussion still has to take place,” Voelker said. “To have the judges continue to fall behind equity-wise, will have an impact on this court system at some point. Is it tomorrow? I doubt it. Is it the next day? Maybe.”
Tony Anderson can be reached by email.