This past regular session, the Louisiana Legislature with Gov. John Bel Edwards created a framework to increase, yet again, judicial salaries. State judges – those on the Supreme Court, the five appellate courts, and 42 district courts, totaling 372 all in all – will receive a 2.5 percent pay hike starting this upcoming fiscal year. They could receive the same in the following four years, if the Supreme Court and the Judicial Budgetary Control Board – comprised mostly of judges at all levels of the judiciary – certify that the funding exists for another round of raises.
A pay raise next year, which includes 68 other local judges and a handful of administrators, would add $1.8 million. Supreme Court associate justices make around $159,000 annually and their appellate counterparts and district judges pull in about $149,000, while the chief justices of each earn an extra $8,000 or so.
Over the years, taxpayers have received a steady stream of poormouthing about Louisiana’s judiciary as justification for ongoing, continuing raises. In fact, the state’s judges do better in salary terms than almost all of their neighbors and in recent years have had pay rise faster than inflation. Nationally, in cost-of-living terms, the most recent data (2016) ranks the state’s district judges as garnering the 12th-best pay in the nation.
But the real question is not relative, but absolute. For a job with very flexible hours, almost for life until somewhat after age 70 (because incumbents who run rarely face a challenge, much less lose it), and no oversight for quality of their decisions (only gross ethics violations stirs the state’s Judiciary Commission, comprised of judges policing themselves, to discipline a judge and the Legislature hasn’t impeached a judge yet), that’s good pay. It’s no wonder that lawyers chomp at the bit to land one of these, and getting oneself elected to a judgeship is the most common reason a legislator leaves office early or after term limitation.
So, despite all the patting each other on the back, legislators don’t need to hand out salary increases to judges. And at least this effort doesn’t force the Legislature to appropriate more money for that purpose this upcoming year, as for next year the judiciary will rely upon its reserves to foot the increase.
Which are considerable – $58 million compared to a budget just under three times that. Not that the public easily can discover that fact; the Louisiana Checkbook facility only contains information about executive branch spending, and auditor reports don’t go into income statements or balance sheets of the Supreme or appellate courts.
Going forward, the Legislature should signal that it will not toss extra bucks to support any existing pay raise given state judges this next year, much less to extend that in the future. If judges want that, they can dip into their reserves to take home more pay while the Legislature takes out a like amount from other judicial activities in its budget. That will take fortitude because by the judiciary issuing the hike this next year (and deliberately so to force the hand of future legislatures, which is why judges would go to the length of dipping into reserves), that gets baked into future salary to a large extent (the Constitution forbids decreasing the compensation of a judge in the term elected – four, six, or ten years).
But it’s the right thing to do by taxpayers. The case hasn’t been made for shoveling more money to judges.