Ohio: Senate approves compensation commission for judges & others; allows judicial salaries to be diminished only in cases of fiscal emergency

The Ohio Senate yesterday approved a plan (SJR 1) to create a Public Office Compensation Commission with the power to reduce judicial salaries mid-term in cases of fiscal emergency, a departure from a 2014 proposal which would have allowed them to be diminished for any reason.

First, some background.

The idea of a Compensation Commission first gained traction last fall with SJR 9 of 2014. Passed unanimously by the Senate in December 2014 and discussed here, the plan repealed the guarantee that judges’ salaries “shall not be diminished during their term of office” allowing for the Commission to reduce salaries as they deemed needed. This was in stark contrast with Arkansas’ constitutional amendment creating a Commission-system approved by voters the month prior that reiterated that judicial salaries could not be reduced during terms of office.

Under SJR 1 of 2015 the new Ohio Commission would be made up of 9 members

  • 2 appointed by Governor
  • 2 appointed by Senate President
  • 2 appointed by House Speaker
  • 1 appointed by Senate minority leader
  • 1 appointed by House minority leader
  • 1 appointed by Chief Justice

The commission would be allowed to recommend without specific justifications increases or decreases of 3% or an amount equal to the latest changes in the Consumer Price Index. Increases or decreases greater than 3% or the CPI would require specific justifications.

Like the 2014 bill, the 2015 bill does repeal the specific provision in the state’s constitution prohibiting decreases in judicial salaries mid-term and replaces it with the Commission system.

The judges of the supreme court, courts of appeals, courts of common pleas, and divisions thereof, and of all courts of record established by law, shall, at stated times, receive, for their services such compensation as may be provided by law, which shall not be diminished during their term of office for in Article II, Section 20a of this constitution.

However, unlike the 2014 bill, a 2015 committee amendment provided judicial salaries some degree of protection. Such salaries could only be reduced if two conditions are met

  1. The General Assembly passes a bill by a three-fifths vote of the members elected to each house that declares a state of fiscal emergency requiring an in-term decrease in compensation and decreases the compensation amount for every elected public office by the same percentage.
  2. The Governor signs the bill (i.e. no veto overrides)

This is similar to provisions in Alaska, Michigan, and other states which do allow for mid-term reduction of judicial salaries, but only where such reductions impact all officials. The constitution of Ohio’s neighbor Pennsylvania provides “Justices, judges and justices of the peace shall be compensated by the Commonwealth as provided by law. Their compensation shall not be diminished during their terms of office, unless by law applying generally to all salaried officers of the Commonwealth.” (Pa. Const. Art. V, ยง 16)

SJR 1 has been assigned to the House Rules and Reference Committee.