Commission seeks raises for judges

The state Judicial Compensation Commission on Monday recommended a multiyear pay raise plan for Louisiana’s judges.

The plan would this year increase Supreme Court justices’ pay by 5.5 percent, appeals court judges by 3.7 percent and general trial court judges by 4 percent.

Supreme Court justices would increase to $159,047; appellate, $149,023 and general trial court, $143,215, according to commission documents.

The raise would cost an estimated $1.7 million.

After that the judges’ pay would increase 2.1 percent a year through 2017 when Supreme Court justices would make $172,343; appellate court judges, $161,275 and trial court $155,279.

The plan now advances to the Louisiana Legislature for consideration.

The commission acted after hearing a report from economist Loren C. Scott, who concluded that Louisiana judges’ pay was lagging behind that of their colleagues in the South.

Scott said pay is not the only factor that could act as a deterrent to good lawyers running for judgeships. A recent change in the state’s retirement system, which eliminates a defined benefit pension plan, creates less certainty in the compensation package, Scott said. “The benefits side is way more empty,” he said.

Judges had a plan that offered guaranteed retirement checks for life. But a Gov. Bobby Jindal-backed plan, which goes into effect July 1, operates similar to a private sector 401(k)-type and does not have the same assurance.

The commission was created by law to monitor the pay of judges and make legislative recommendations.

The Louisiana Legislature would have to approve the pay raise plan in its regular session, which opens April 8, and if the increase is approved, Jindal would have to sign that measure into law.

The commission chairman, state Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Metairie, said the raises are warranted and it is the commission’s duty to make the recommendation.

The pay raise recommendation is coming at a time when the state is facing a $1 billion budget shortfall in the state fiscal year that begins July 1. A pay raise proposal went nowhere last year.

“It’s important we recommend some move up to compensate for the fact that other states have their judges going up 2.1 percent a year. ... When we don’t increase our judges salaries 2.1 percent, we are falling behind,” said Kirby Newberger, a commissioner from New Orleans.

“In effect, not increasing these salaries, you are cutting these salaries,” said state Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, also a commissioner

Third Circuit Court of Appeal Judge Gene Thibodeaux, of Lake Charles and also a commissioner, said many judges are “boomer babies” and getting ready to retire. He said the current level pay and changes in retirement benefits will make it harder to attract qualified lawyers to the bench in the future.