Massachusetts Judges Conference, others push for judicial salary increase

Issue May 2012 By Tricia M. Oliver

The Massachusetts Judges Conference, through its president, the Hon. James G. Collins, is lobbying the House of Representatives and Senate, as well as Gov. Deval Patrick, for a long-overdue increase to judicial compensation.

Representing nearly 80 percent of the state's approximately 400 judges and more than 100 bench retirees, the MJC has presented legislators with an informational packet making the case to implement the recommendations of the Advisory Board on Compensation for Honorable Judicial Salaries (a.k.a. the Guzzi Commission) issued in 2008.

According to the most recent "Survey of Judicial Salaries" reported by the National Center for State Courts in 2011, Massachusetts judicial salaries, after accounting for cost of living, rank 47th lowest in the country. This marks a worsening of the matter since the Guzzi Commission recommendations were presented. At that time, Massachusetts ranked 40th.

Created and appointed by the Legislature in 2008 and led by Paul Guzzi, the president and chief executive officer of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, the Guzzi Commission recommended raising Bay State judges' compensation levels to rank 28th, when adjusted for the cost of living. Another provision included annual cost-of-living adjustments for members of the bench. Currently, without legislative action, COLA increases are not provided to members of the bench.

The MJC has received growing support on this issue from the bar and other community groups and leaders as it attempts to secure only the second pay increase for judges in the last 14 years.

"We believe that now is the appropriate time to consider the recommendations of the Guzzi Commission," said Collins. "The Judges Conference has not breathed a word until now as we recognized the difficulties that this state faced in terms of the recession."

Collins explained that last winter, 97 percent of Massachusetts judges and clerks voluntarily agreed to take five furlough days. According to the MJC's materials provided to the Legislature, this significant measure saved $2.4 million, and thereby avoided layoffs of nearly  50 critically needed court personnel.

Collins explained that the current compensation level for the bench is not in line with judges' "heavy duty to ensure justice."

Massachusetts judges last saw a pay increase in 2006 thanks to the Legislature's passing of a pay raise bill. Prior to 2006, judicial compensation was stagnant since 1998, when a multi-year phase-in salary increase took place.

"This reality jeopardizes the commonwealth's ability to attract and retain the brightest minds of the bar to serve in the crucial roles on the bench," said Richard P. Campbell, president, Massachusetts Bar Association.

As Campbell also points out in his "President's View" column in this issue, a significant amount of state employees are paid more than the members of Massachusetts' highest court.

According to the NCSC, Massachusetts Trial Court judges are paid an average of $129,694, or $106,370 when adjusted for cost of living. Taking COLA into account, only judges in New York, Vermont, Maine and Hawaii earn less.

Regarding when the MJC anticipates the governor and Legislature act will act on this matter, Collins said, "hopefully sometime later this year," after the state budget is finalized.