There’s a Better Way to Set Judicial Pay

A perennial problem in democratic governance: how do you compensate judges fairly.

The Founders knew that letting judicial pay be subject to the whims of the overtly political branches was a bad idea, which is why the Constitution forbids mucking with judges’ pay.

Oregon is at or near the bottom in terms of paying judges. That is why the new bill, SB11, to raise judicial pay is needed–but also why it might turn into a piñata and absorb a lot of whacks from voters.

It’s clear that Oregon judges lag behind the obvious comparison cases, judges in other states, but it is equally hard to argue that Oregon judges are underpaid in any absolute sense, given the state’s generally smaller salaries compared nationwide.

Besides, while our judicial salaries lag those in other states, Oregon lags behind other states on countless other measures of well-being. The state’s economy is in contraction because the natural resource based economy is just a fraction of its former size but no equally strong wealth-creating sector of the economy has filled the gap. Our bizarre, Rube Goldberg tax system is as stable and well-considered as a 3 a.m. White House tweet.

So taxpayer fury, fanned into a white heat crescendo by corporate anti-tax crusaders, is likely to be in abundant supply during this year’s legislative session, thanks to the enormous current state revenue shortfall, approaching $2 billion, with more predicted for future sessions. This fury has a way of bursting any bounds and incinerating proposals for things that, objectively, make no difference at all to the actual tax rates beyond the sixth decimal place but that are unlucky enough to have strong symbolic potency.

And there is no more obvious symbol likely to serve as tinder and kindling for anti-tax organizing than a proposal that gives judges, including on the Oregon Tax Court, a raise while Oregon is shuttering schools and ending health coverage for the poor.

Ultimately, the solution to public pay setting is to create “set and forget” public employee pay tables that put the pay for each public job classification at a certain multiple of the state minimum wage.

Thus, for examples, instead of saying that an appellate court judge in Oregon makes $150,000, the pay for the job would be legislatively “set and forget” at the annual equivalent of 7.25 times the state hourly minimum wage. The minimum wage is indexed to inflation, so we no longer need to keep revisiting and revising pay salaries to keep up. We would take a similar approach to the salaries of trial judges, state agencies, and the Legislature itself.

Once the tables are established, the job of the Legislature would no longer include having to adjust salaries by recurrent votes that are subject to relentless demagoguery.  As inflation pushes up the minimum wage, the more generous salaries available through public employment rise proportionally, but not-disproportionately. And a recurrent source of problems for public employers is resolved.

SB 11       STAFF MEASURE SUMMARY
Senate Committee On Judiciary

Action Date:      02/14/17

Action:      Do pass and refer to Ways and Means by prior reference.
Vote:      4-1-0-0
Yeas:      4 – Dembrow, Manning Jr, Prozanski, Thatcher
Nays:       1 – Linthicum
Fiscal:      Fiscal impact issued
Revenue:      No revenue impact

WHAT THE MEASURE DOES:
Increases current annual salary for Oregon judges. Establishes salary rate increases through January 1, 2020.

ISSUES DISCUSSED:
·  Discussion of need for greater pay of Oregon judges

·  Overview of past legislation addressing Oregon judge salaries

BACKGROUND:
According to the National Center for State Courts (NCSC), as of July 1, 2016, Oregon ranked 47th out of 50 states and the District of Columbia for high court judges’ pay, 36th for intermediate appellate court judges’ pay out of the 40 states with these courts, and 48th out of the 50 states and D.C. for general jurisdiction court judges’ pay. Judges’ pay for general jurisdiction courts in Oregon is ranked 50th nationally when adjusted for the cost-of-living index.

Senate Bill 11 increases annual salaries for judges as follows: Supreme Court Chief Justice
·  Increases salary from $138,556 to $150,571.92 for 2017

·  Increases salary by $6,476 on January 1 of 2018, 2019 and 2020

Supreme Court Judge

·  Increases salary from $135,688 to $147,559.92 for 2017

·  Increases salary by $6,863 on January 1 of 2018, 2019 and 2020

Court of Appeals Chief Judge

·  Increases salary from $135,688 to $147,559.92 for 2017

·  Increases salary by $6,863 on January 1 of 2018, 2019 and 2020

Court of Appeals Judge

·  Increases salary from $132,820 to $144,535.92 for 2017

·  Increases salary by $6,821 on January 1 of 2018, 2019 and 2020

Circuit Court Judge

·  Increases salary from $124,468 to $135,775.92 for 2017

SB 11        STAFF MEASURE SUMMARY

·   Increases salary by $5,691 on January 1 of 2018, 2019 and 2020 Tax Court Judge

·   Increases salary from $128,164 to $139,651.92 for 2017

·   Increases salary by $6,424 on January 1 of 2018, 2019 and 2020