Appeals Court Judge Peter W. Agnes Jr. speaks on court funding, judicial salaries

Issue January 2012

Massachusetts Appeals Court Associate Justice Peter W. Agnes Jr. spoke at the Massachusetts Bar Association Presidents' Dinner on Nov. 17 at the University of Massachusetts Club in Boston.

Included here are his comments regarding court financing and judicial salaries.

I didn't accept [MBA] President [Richard P.] Campbell's special invitation to appear here tonight simply to say thank you. So give me just a few moments to address another topic -- the future of the judicial department. And, here I must emphasize that the observations I make are my own.

We face challenges that we have not faced before.

… We must confront the new reality of how the Judicial Department will fulfill its mission to provide the citizens of the commonwealth with access to justice in an era of diminishing resources. Today I read that the governor and Secretary of A&F Gonzalez predict that 40 percent of the FY2013 budget will be consumed by the cost of health care.

Despite prudent fiscal management by our governor and Legislature, a "rainy day" fund that has been brought back to a $1.3 billion level and continues to be replenished, and the expectation that revenues will grow, due in part to modest job growth and one-time revenues from casino gambling, yesterday the executive branch informed municipal leaders that there is a "budget gap" for FY2013, which begins July 1, 2012.

In other words, today the prediction is that in the next fiscal year, projected revenues will not be sufficient to offset projected costs given our current level of spending. We do not yet have an estimate of what the gap means in dollars.

However, in view of the fact that spending on the courts has declined significantly over the past four years - $605 million down to about $540 million -- that we have not hired anyone for four years, and that there is no expectation of an increase in federal aid to the states, there is reason to be concerned about how much revenue will be made available in FY2012 and beyond to fund the court system.

There are forces affecting future budgets for the Judicial Department that are very difficult to control, and some are simply beyond our control. In my view, at a minimum, we need a comprehensive planning process, with participation from organizations like the MBA and experts outside the Judicial Department, to design models for how to operate a system of justice with even less revenue that what is available to us this year.

Yet, as difficult as it may be to secure adequate funds for the courts, I wish to bring my remarks tonight to a close by urging you to support the proposition that funding for the courts in FY2013 must include funds for an increase in judicial compensation. In the tradition of Jack Webb's "Joe Friday," here are the facts and just the facts:

  • A Massachusetts trial judge earns $129,500 per year; Massachusetts judges and clerks have had one pay raise in the past 13 years (2006) and receive no cost of living allowance.
  • Massachusetts now ranks 47th out of 50 in terms of judicial salaries in the nation, adjusted for inflation, according to the January 2011 ranking by the National Center for State Courts. Among the states. In real dollars, some comparisons include California at $179,000, Pennsylvania at $164,000, New Jersey at $165,000, Rhode Island at $145,000, Virginia at $158,000 and Illinois at $178,000.
  • In Massachusetts, the legislatively created Compensation Commission (known as the Guzzi Commission), comprised of persons outside of government, conducted a thorough study of public sector salaries and the salaries of judges around the nation and submitted its report on June 20, 2008, in which it concluded that "[t]he evidence presented to and gathered by the Board makes a compelling case for increasing the salaries of Massachusetts judges" and recommended trial judges salaries be increased to $160,000.
  • Among Massachusetts public employees, there are thousands of people who earn more in annual compensation that the chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, and their titles include sergeant, lieutenant, captain, major, chief, program coordinator, nurse, lecturer, assistant professor, associate professor, professor, director and district attorney, to name only a few. Incidentally, I applaud the decision by public employers to pay these folks an honorable salary. But it is more than a bit ironic that the only group of public employees who are guaranteed an "honorable salary" in the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 are the judges.
  • Finally, the annualized cost of the Guzzi Commission-recommended salary adjustments is $26 million, which includes all judges, clerks and registers and their assistants. And our view, by the way, is that the salaries of judges, clerks and registers and their assistants should remain linked together. Phasing it in over two years would thus cost about $12 million per year.

So how do we get there from here?

Here, I will speak for the Massachusetts Judges Conference, which represents about 85 percent of the state's judges.

First, the MJC asks you to take a stand and say that honorable salaries for judges, at the level recommended by the Guzzi Commission ($160,000 per year), should be treated as a core element of court funding for FY2013;

Second, the MJC asks you to take a stand and say that honorable salaries for judges, at the level recommended by the Guzzi Commission ($160,000 per year), should not be bargained away, under any circumstances, for any other element of court funding; and

Third, the MJC asks you and the MBA to work with us in developing a strategy to take this issue to a broader audience of government leaders, leaders of the business community, the media and others to establish an effective coalition in support of a compensation increase for judges, clerks and registers in the upcoming fiscal year.

On behalf of my president, Judge James Collins, who served with distinction in the Massachusetts House for 14 years before assuming the duties of a Juvenile Court justice, and who could not be here tonight because he is chairing the MJC's annual business meeting, I salute each and every one of you for your extraordinary service to the legal profession and thank you and the MBA for your commitment to the public interest and your unfailing support for the Massachusetts judiciary.