Today Governor Perdue vetoed raises for Superior Court judges and District Attorneys. In a statement released with the veto, the Governor said, “I have consistently expressed concern with raising judicial officers’ salaries without tackling the well above-market retirement benefits.” He also said that a study he commissioned showed that Georgia’s judges’ pay was competitive compared to judges in other states and compared to “various counsel.” That study also showed that the Georgia “judiciary’s retirement benefits are far above market average.”
What he did not say is that the study he commissioned compared judicial salaries with base salaries of a narrow slice of in-house corporate counsel, excluding bonuses, stock options, etc. Perhaps the Governor is too busy to recognize the methodological flaw in the study, and therefore is just seriously misinformed.
Judges with whom I have talked in recent months had expressed concern that there was little or no hope for raises as long as Governor Perdue is in office. Some have speculated that one example of a judge in the Governor’s home circuit who retired due to apparently fatal cancer, but then went into remission and became very active as a Senior Judge, may have colored the Governor’s thinking about the entire judiciary.
I have been concerned for some time about the crisis in judicial compensation. Of course it is always possible to get a government lawyer to accept a Superior Court appointment, and it isn’t too hard to get a small town general practice lawyer to do so, because the judicial pay is relatively attractive in that setting. However in the large metro counties, it is rare for lawyers in a successful private practice to even consider becoming judges. Many — though not all — of those who do appear to have substantial assets, a spouse in a highly compensated field, or both. That is the economic reality in light of the crisis in judicial compensation, whereby both state and federal judges are paid on par with a first or second year associate in a large law firm. The fact remains that new graduates straight out of law school are getting starting salaries at large law firms on par with Supeior Court judges with decades of experience making critically important decisions about the lives, property and families of Georgia citizens.
While there are excellent examples of Assistant District Attorneys and Assistant Attorneys General becoming excellent judges, the judicial system loses is the perspective of lawyers who have spent decades practicing law and litigating cases in the private sector. It is important to pay judges enough that private practice lawyers in their prime years can afford to go on the bench and still send their kids to college. While judicial salaries are attractive to government lawyers and less successful private practitioners with political connections, and do not deter those who are independently wealthy, reasonably successful middle class lawyers in private practice, and with families to support, simply cannot afford the pay cut. With the crisis in judicial compensation, it is amazing that we have as many good judges as we do.
Even when a seasoned private practice lawyer with an excellent professional reputation does go through the nomination process, the tendency of Governors of both parties has been to pick government lawyers and political figures over seasoned private practice litigators, so the reaction of many who could afford the pay cut is, “why bother?” I have seen friends who would have been stellar judges passed over in favor of young government lawyers who are fine, but have negligible private practice experience.
It is unfortunate the Governor Perdue is misinformed. I still cling to a faint hope that he may gain a greater appreciation of the importance of making judgeships attractive to seasoned lawyers who have the perspective of having done well in private practice, who have families to support, and who are not independently wealthy.