By JACK ELLIOTT JR.
JACKSON — The new year marks the beginning of four years’ of incremental salary increases for Mississippi judges — thanks to Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr. for a novel funding method that didn’t raid the treasury.
The judges’ last pay raise was in 2003. The new pay scale approved by the Legislature and Gov. Phil Bryant in 2012 increases salaries in four annual steps, topping out in 2016.
It not only increases salaries for members of the Supreme Court and state Court of Appeals but also for chancery, circuit and county court judges as well as district attorneys and their assistants.
Money for the raises would come from increasing filing fees in civil and appellate courts. Raises for district attorneys and assistant district attorneys would come from fee increases for various felonies and misdemeanors, including speeding and littering.
For example, court filing fees will increase $40 to cover the raises. Fines for crimes and traffic tickets will increase $10 to cover prosecutors’ raises.
Salaries for judges are set by state law. County court judges’ salaries vary by county population.
“The Judicial Compensation Realignment Act will help the judiciary retain and attract the best and brightest judges to serve the people of Mississippi. There is no additional burden on the taxpayers as it is funded by user fees,” Waller said in an email statement to the Associated Press.
Waller approached the Legislature with the user fee proposal in 2011. The bill passed the Senate but died in the House amid a tight budget year in which no other public employee got a raise.
Waller and other supporters said many judges and prosecutors could easily make more money in private practice and pay increases would help keep bright legal minds in public service.
During the 2011 debate, Waller said the court system had experienced “for the first time in recent history, the highest rate of turnover I’ve seen.”
Between legislative sessions, Waller and some other justices went out across the state speaking to any group that would listen.
At a meeting of the Gulf Coast Business Council, Justice Michael Randolph reminded those attending that the last time judges received a raise gasoline was $1.89 a gallon.
In 2012, Waller gave lawmakers another reason to approve the pay package; one that likely was very attractive.
He said the new funding mechanism would keep judges out of the Capitol, preventing them from having to involve themselves so much in the legislative process and allowing them to focus on judicial duties.
The law provides for a system by which the State Personnel Board would regularly re-evaluate the salaries of Mississippi judges and district attorneys. The board would make recommendations to the Legislature for new compensation based on how those salaries compare to other states, rates of inflation, and the general economic climate.
“This will help create more judiciary independence by separating the Legislature and the judiciary on this issue,” Waller said last April.
For lawmakers, it meant no throng of judges lobbying them in the hallways of the Capitol and an end to dozens of phone calls from jurists back home.
Beginning Jan. 1, the chief justice will be paid $126,292, while two presiding justices will get $123,600 each and six associate Justices $122,460 each.
The chief judge of the Court of Appeals will earn $117,992 and nine associate judges with each earn $114,994. Chancery and circuit judges will be paid $112,127 each.
District attorneys will be paid $103,322 a year with their assistants paid a prorated percentage of their boss’ salary depending on experience.
County court judges will receive an annual salary supplement of $7,957.