Judges raise issue of pay

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

To illustrate the predicament judges face when deciding whether to continue on the bench or return to private practice, Circuit Judge William Syler on Monday told a state commission studying pay about his daughter, Lauren Syler.

She's 29, and he's 58. She finished law school last year, moved to Texas and joined a law firm there. And, he said, she's already making more money than he's being paid by the state.

A parent is always proud when a child "exceeds our success," he said. "And actually, I'm not saying that entirely in jest. It just illustrates where we are."

Syler is president of the state Circuit Judges' Association. He was making a pitch on behalf of himself and all judges in Missouri, who haven't had a raise in six years.

"It is an honor to have this job. I enjoy it immensely," Syler said. "I intend to finish out the next two years and file again."

But unless pay raises are forthcoming, he told the Citizens Commission on Compensation for Elected Officials, not all judges will remain on the bench.

During an 80-minute Cape Girardeau public hearing of the commission, no one spoke against giving raises. The three members on hand and those listening on a teleconference also didn't hear anyone suggest how big the raises should be. All of those testifying in Cape Girardeau talked about judicial pay, with little mention of pay increases for statewide elected officials or state lawmakers.

The hearing Monday was the last for taking testimony. The 22-member commission will meet Wednesday in Jefferson City to make its recommendations. If state lawmakers don't reject the pay schedule by a two-thirds vote before Feb. 1, the raises will take effect automatically July 1.

Judicial pay

Judicial pay in Missouri, the panel was told, ranks below that in any adjoining state. The pay ranges from $96,000 for an associate circuit judge, to $123,000 for judges of the Missouri Supreme Court. Appeals court judges receive $115,000, while circuit judges like Syler are paid $108,000 a year.

Syler's testimony was followed by Associate Circuit Judge Byron Luber of Pemiscot County. Luber, who is president of the Associate Circuit Judges' Association, said the spread between the best-paid and worst-paid judges should be narrower and kept rigid. Raises based on percentage increases are unfair to the lower paid judges, he said.

Associate circuit judges, he said, are the first and sometimes only level of courtroom judge seen by Missourians, he said. Every criminal case begins before an associate circuit judge, he noted.

"This disparity is totally unjustified," Luber said.

To make the system fairer, he said, the commission should decide on the most appropriate pay for Supreme Court judges, then consider how big a gap should exist between the levels of the judiciary. For example, if pay for a Supreme Court judge remained at $123,000, and the commission decided on a gap of $4,000, associate circuit court judges would receive a pay boost of $15,000 a year.

The current system, Luber said, creates some "jealousy and dissension between divisions" of the courts. "A raise based on a percentage doesn't sit very well when you do the same work."

The commission was revitalized when voters approved Amendment 7 on Nov. 7. That constitutional change made it harder for the Missouri Legislature to reject the commission's pay plan and requires lawmakers to fund raises they don't reject by a direct vote. Prior recommendations by the panel, which has been in existence for 10 years, have either been rejected or underfunded.

Also, the legislature added a provision that bars them from any pay raise proposed by the commission until Jan. 1, 2009, when the successors to the current crop of lawmakers take office.

There's ambiguity in that provision, however, because it applies to pay plans filed after the new amendment takes effect, which won't occur until Dec. 7. The commission must make its recommendation by Friday.

"We all recognize the political realities; we recognize the financial realities of any raise," Luber said. "We would like a raise."

Matt Mocherman of the Missouri Bar Board of Governors, urged the commission to approve raises for judges. "I don't know how many people would work six years without a raise," he said. "They have stuck with it, but we are pushing our luck."

rkeller@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 126

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