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Budget requests likely to include increases for judicial salaries, private rate for public-defender appointments

Among the proposals likely to be up for inclusion in the state’s next budget are pay increases for judges, government lawyers and private attorneys who serve as public defender.

Even though the state’s most recent legislative session just came to an end, state agencies are starting to consider what they might want in the next budget. The requests are not due until October.

But it’s already clear in some cases what will be sought.

Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Pat Roggensack, for one, has set a priority on increasing judges’ salaries.

Slow, low pay

• Trial court judges

$131, 187 — The salary of a circuit court judge in Wisconsin

$151, 986 — The average salary of a trial court judge in Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa and Michigan as of January 2014

• Appellate Court judges

$139,059 — The salary of an appellate court judge in Wisconsin

$162,511 — The salary of an appellate court judge in surrounding Midwest states

• Supreme Court justices

$147,403 — The salary of a Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice

$175, 132 — The salary of a justice on the supreme courts of surrounding Midwest states

Source: Legislative Fiscal Bureau

“We’re hoping to put something together that the governor will think is appropriate and what the Legislature will think is appropriate, but we are a long way from knowing those numbers,” Roggensack said.

Increasing judicial salaries has been a goal of the Supreme Court’s for years. In the state’s 2011-2013 budget, then Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson had asked for the creation of a commission to review judicial salaries every two years. The proposal would have set pay increases in accordance with the commission’s recommendations or the general wage increases given to state employees, whichever of the two were higher.

Despite wide support for the higher pay, Gov. Scott Walker did not include the request in his draft version of the state’s budget. When the Legislature later added its own provision that would have created such a commission, the governor responded with a veto.

The Supreme Court made a similar attempt in the state’s current budge. This time, though, the proposal would have had judicial salaries set at a level comparable to those paid in surrounding Midwestern states.

Appellate judges in Wisconsin made $139,059 in 2014. Their counterparts in Iowa, Michigan and Minnesota, meanwhile, make $162,511 on average, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

Yet bringing Wisconsin into line with nearby states would not be cheap. If all the salaries of all judicial offices in Wisconsin were increased to match the average salary in surrounding states, the cost would run to $6.7 million.

Working on the state’s current budget, Walker refrained from rejecting the Supreme Court’s request once again. He instead threw his support behind a slightly modified version of the plan. Rejection this time came from the state’s powerful Joint Finance Committee, which primarily deals with budgetary matters.

See the difference

$40 an hour — What Wisconsin private attorneys are paid for taking cases assigned by the State Public Defender.

$129 an hour — What private attorneys are paid to handle federal felony district court cases as of Jan. 1.

Ralph Cagle, president-elect of the Wisconsin State Bar, said there is a direct link between salaries and the quality of the state’s judiciary.

“It is increasingly difficult to get highly qualified people to run for judicial offices,” he said. “Part of that is the problem to run for office, there’s an expense involved … even at the circuit court level in some counties.”

Another pay-related topic likely to figure in budget talks is the rate paid to private lawyers when they agree to take cases as public defenders.

The current rate is $40 an hour for casework and $25 an hour for travel. Those amounts are far exceeded by pay at other levels of government. Private attorneys who handle felony cases in federal district courts, for example, get $129 an hour.

Cagle said the battle to increase pay rates in Wisconsin has been long and frustrating.

“(It) makes no sense at all,” he said. “No one can make an argument that it’s an appropriate rate. It just costs money to increase it. Well, when you go 20-some years without increasing it, it costs a fair amount of money to make it even modest.”

A push for higher pay is also likely to come from the State Public Defender’s Office, said Randy Kraft, communications director for the office.

“The current rate does not reflect the realities of the marketplace,” he said. “In fact, it does not even cover the overhead costs of operating a law practice. The current rate is not only well below what attorneys customarily charge private clients, but it is substantially below the rate that the government pays for virtually all contracted services.”

About 1,200 attorneys are licensed to take public defender cases in Wisconsin, and a quarter of those take five or fewer cases a year. Cagle said increasing the rate is an important goal.

“It’s important not just for the benefit of lawyers who do the work. It really is not just for the benefit of people who need public defenders, it’s for the benefit of society as a whole,” he said. “The whole system depends on people having adequate defense.”


About Erika Strebel, erika.strebel@wislawjournal.com

Erika Strebel is the law beat reporter for the Wisconsin Law Journal and a law school student at UW-Madison. She can be reached at 414-225-1825.

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