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State judicial pay soars; top jurist says courts underfunded

| Monday, May 16, 2011

HARRISBURG — Despite complaints of inadequate funding, the Pennsylvania judiciary's payroll increased almost 20 percent, from $159 million to $190.4 million, during the past six years, a Tribune-Review analysis of payroll records found.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille, whose $195,138 annual pay is third highest among state chief justices nationwide, recently warned the Legislature that the state might be "headed toward a crisis" because of years of underfunding the courts.

Castille projects a $47 million deficit for the courts in the 2011-12 budget, and he wants the Legislature to approve a 25 percent funding increase. His request was made as lawmakers grapple with a $4.2 billion deficit. Gov. Tom Corbett suggested a 50 percent funding cut for state-related universities and cutting aid for school districts.

The Trib's examination showed the state's judicial payroll alone increased by about $31.4 million since 2006.

Ed Collins of West Newton, a retired Westinghouse marketing and communications specialist, has little sympathy for the judicial system's plea for more money.

"That's too damn bad. It's tough on everybody," he said.

Former state Rep. John Kennedy, a retired railroad executive from Camp Hill who chairs the nonpartisan government reform group Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania, said it appears the courts "have been on the same binge as government at all levels."

Kennedy, a Republican, said the court's payroll increases and request for more money occur in an era when "people can't pay their oil bills, cities are broke, and in the private sector, a pay freeze is the norm." An outside agency should audit the court's finances, he said.

James Koval, spokesman for the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, or AOPC, an agency for the unified court system, said judges' salary increases are set by law and that officials took numerous steps to control staff costs through "a hiring freeze and position consolidation."

Among them: State-funded staff positions decreased by five during the period. Cost-of-living increases for staff were halted during an 18-month period in the second half of 2008 and through 2009. Merit increases were not given in 2009, were capped in 2010 and then reduced this year, he said.

The 2011 AOPC payroll includes salaries of 1,007 justices, judges and district justices, as well as 1,018 judicial staffers: court administrators, law clerks, staff attorneys and office personnel. Payroll data provided by the courts show 591 people — or about 29 percent — are paid more than $100,000 a year.

According to the National Center for State Courts' 2011 salary survey, Pennsylvania's judges and justices are among the top paid state jurists in the nation.

Koval said "a strong argument can be made that comparisons are more relevant not to the 50 states, but to what jurists might make in private practice in or closer to Pennsylvania, which is far greater than salaries of any judge."

The Trib last year detailed how statewide appellate court judges get state-paid vehicles and some drive luxury cars such as Cadillacs, Lexuses and high-end SUVs. Supreme Court justices and other statewide appellate court judges have pricey hometown offices, despite the $117 million Pennsylvania Judicial Center, which opened in 2009. The nine-floor appellate courts building was financed with borrowed money that taxpayers must repay.

Corbett, in his March budget address, recommended keeping the court system's budget at about $335 million. The House Republican budget proposed last week also would keep the court system at current levels.

Ken Gormley, dean of the Duquesne University Law School, described the AOPC as "an extraordinarily efficient and excellent operation." He said he has worked extensively with the office in two roles, as president of the Allegheny County Bar Association and as an expert on the Pennsylvania Constitution.

Although the court system's 2006 payroll initially totaled $159 million, the state Supreme Court in September that year jump-started the payroll's six-year increase by reinstating judicial pay raises that the Legislature approved and then revoked a year earlier. The raise that judges approved for themselves was retroactive to November 2005.

Pennsylvania judges received additional boosts since then, thanks to a state law that provides annual cost-of-living increases for judges, lawmakers and some executive branch employees based on the Consumer Price Index.

Castille wrote the 2006 opinion reinstating the pay raise for the courts, saying the Legislature's repeal was "clearly, palpably and plainly unconstitutional in that it diminished judicial compensation."

Five years later, the $189,620 annual salary for each of the Supreme Court justices ranks third highest in the nation, according to a preliminary report on the website of the National Center for State Courts. Pay for common pleas judges in Pennsylvania ranks sixth highest nationally at $164,602 a year, based on data for about 45 states, center officials said.

Koval noted that in the center's complete rankings for 2010, Pennsylvania Supreme Court justices were fourth in salary, and Common Pleas judges ranked seventh.

"I presume that the public expects the best and brightest to be judges," said Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey Manning. But judges depend on the will of the Legislature "for a decent stipend."

"I teach law school, and a number of my students go out and get (a salary) in excess of what judges serving for 20 years make," Manning said.

Matthew Creme, president of the Pennsylvania Bar Association, said the state's judicial salaries seem appropriate.

"The salary levels seem to be working, in relation to attracting experienced, well-qualified lawyers to run for these offices," Creme said. "What is the relationship to what lawyers are earning• Five years ago, it might have been said judges weren't being paid enough, compared to their peers in the practice of law. Five years later, given the recession and the erosion that has happened to lawyers' salaries, it might be said they're being paid too much. Hopefully over the long run, it evens out."

While Castille's salary is third highest nationally among chief justices, it ranks 26th highest among Pennsylvania state employees. It is behind the salaries for college presidents, pension fund investment advisers and officials at a state education loan agency, according to the Trib's analysis of the state payroll.

Nevertheless, numbers that put the state's judges among America's highest paid grate on court critics.

"The taxpayers are tired of the judiciary crying the blues," said citizen activist and lawyer Gene Stilp of Harrisburg, a leading opponent of the 2005 judicial pay raise and one of those who challenged it in court. "They have to, like everybody else, learn to get by with what they have."

Castille insists he is doing just that. Among other things, he said he imposed an out-of-state travel ban after justices and judges for years traveled to resort locations for bar conferences.

Greg Hurley, an analyst with the National Center for State Courts, said judicial pay has been frozen in most states since 2008. Unlike Pennsylvania, many states do not grant judges annual cost-of-living increases, he said.

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