Much to the surprise of most everyone in the State Capitol, by a 5-2 vote the State Officers Compensation Commission (SOCC) has recommended that Michigan Supreme Court justices' $164,610 salary be increased by 3% in 2013, to $169,548, and by another 3% in 2014, to $174,634. Because the compensation of all other state judges is tied to the Supreme Court salary by statute, the recommendation has the effect of proposing a pay increase for all state judges. SOCC recommendations take effect only if approved by both houses of the Legislature.
Early responses indicate that legislative approval will be a hard sell, at best.
The case for an increase is straightforward: Michigan's judges have not had a raise of any kind since 2002, while, at the same time, inflation has increased by about 20% and benefits are being cut back. And although many Michigan lawyers are suffering the effects of the economic downturn, it is not unusual for new lawyers at Michigan's larger firms to take home annual salaries exceeding those of judges.
But however compelling the case, the politics of an increase are daunting. The Justices are already Michigan's highest paid elected state officials. Not only does the SOCC recommendation leave the other state officials' salaries unchanged, but the salaries of the others -- including the legislators who must approve the proposed increase -- have just been reduced by 10%.
The judges of Michigan appreciate that the State Officers Compensation Commission has recognized that a freeze on judicial compensation for over a decade is not good public policy. Our priority continues to be to make the justice system right-sized, smarter, more user-friendly and more accountable. We appreciate the recommendation for an increase in compensation. Given the continued budgetary situation of the state, however, we would understand if the legislature chose not to increase judicial salaries at this time. We are confident that as Michigan’s recovery progresses, the issue will be revisited.
Lest there be any doubt, the Supreme Court's spokesperson said the recommendation "is not something our Chief Justice supports.”
The State Bar of Michigan, in turn, commended the judges for putting the state’s budget situation ahead of their own personal interests. "While the SOCC recommendation is more than justified, the Bar's statement said, "the judges have recognized that the more urgent need is to make sure that the court system can function in this changing economy, serving the public more efficiently while protecting access to justice." The State Bar agreed with the judges that, in the long run, the court system will be undermined if judicial pay is allowed to stagnate indefinitely, but that this is not the right time to fix that problem.
The SOCC report and recommendation is here. (PDF)