Michigan, Oregon, and Nevada legislatures look at 3 different approaches to judicial salaries: tie to CPI, tie to state employees, binding commission

Three states are actively debating the way in which to pay for, and increase, judicial salaries in their respective states. Each takes a somewhat different approach in this arena.

Michigan: Tie increases to state employees’ increases

SB 56, approved March 26 on a 33-3 vote, would link judicial salaries to those of state employees. Currently, judges of the Court of Appeals, Circuit Court, Probate Court, and District Court make a certain percentage of the salary of a Supreme Court justice. Court of Appeals = 92%; Circuit = 85%; Probate = 85%; District = 84%

SB 56 keeps the practice of using a percent of the Supreme Court and adds to it an amount based on percentage pay increases, excluding lump-sum payments, paid to civil service nonexclusively represented employees (NEREs) classified as executives and administrators on or after January 1, 2016. According to an analysis done by the Michigan Legislature that increase would be anywhere from 0-3% but has in the past averaged 2%.

Oregon: Tie to CPI

SB 446, set for a hearing tomorrow (April 8) is filed at the request of the state’s Chief Justice and the Oregon Circuit Court Judges Association. The plan calls for a review every before July 1 every year by the Chief Justice of the Portland-Salem, OR-WA Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers for All Items. If there was an increase in the previous calendar year, the Chief Justice would adjust the salaries for the Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, and Circuit courts accordingly effective July 1 starting July 1, 2016. The CPI data as of February 2015 can be found here and indicates increases from 2010-2014 of 1.3-2.9% with an average of 2.3%

Nevada: Create binding joint compensation commission

Last year Arkansas adopted a binding salary commission to set salaries for state officials including judges that could not be overridden by the state’s legislature. Nevada is set to debate today (April 7) the creation of a very similar commission for that state in the form of AJR 10. The constitutional amendment would set up a Citizens’ Commission on Salaries for Certain Elected Officers that would take over from the (advisory) Commission to Review the Compensation of Constitutional Officers, Legislators, Supreme Court Justices, Judges of the Court of Appeals, District Judges and Elected County Officers.

The new Citizens’ Commission, using language almost identical to the Arkansas bill from last year, would be made up of

  • Two members chosen by the Assembly Speaker
  • Two members chosen by the Senate Majority Leader
  • Two members chosen by the Governor
  • One member chosen by the Chief Justice

Notable here is the breakdown with legislative leaders picking a 4/7 majority of the new Citizens’ Commission The current advisory Commission to Review gives only 2/9 to the legislative leaders, another 2/9 to the legislative minority party leaders, 2/9 to the Chief Justice, and 3/9 to the Governor.

The new Citizens’ Commission would be prohibited from diminishing the salaries of judges and others while in office and be limited in increasing salaries more than 15% per report (except for the first report where the 15% ceiling would be waived). In Arkansas, the increases for judges were about 11% in that state’s first report.

Finally, and critically, there would be no legislative override of the Citizens’ Commission by the legislature.

The Legislature shall provide by law for setting apart from each year’s revenues a sufficient amount of money to pay such salaries [set by the Citizens’ Commission].

Aside from Arkansas, no other state has a comparable provision. 7 states allow for legislative override although some set the threshold as 2/3rds (Arizona, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, Missouri, New York, Oklahoma) while an 8th (Washington) allows for a voter referendum to override.