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Pay our Judges Well
By Jeff Terrill
Fort Wayne Reader
Iím an attorney. I deal with judges just about every day. I donít always agree with their rulings and I can assure you they donít always agree with me. Judicial officers work really hard and their county subsidies should not be eliminated. My law partners and I, along with local attorneys and others associated with the courts, agree that judicial officers donít deserve a pay cut. Pay them more, not less. If it were up to me (and itís not), I would recommend a judicial pay increase after each year of service. The more years they put in, the more they make.
In October of this year, the Allen County council members approved pay cuts for 19 Allen County judges and magistrates. The move was intended to save taxpayers approximately $100,000 each year, but would likely end up costing the county substantially more. The judges, magistrates and hearing officers in Allen County are valuable assets, not liabilities. Good judicial officers save taxpayers money. They are highly trained professionals who get more efficient each year at handling escalating caseloads. Judicial officers arenít just required to be quick and responsive, they also need to be precise and accurate with their rulings.
In 2007, a Grant County judge successfully sued the county for a similar pay cut approved by that countyís council. The judge was ultimately awarded his back pay, plus costs and interest. The state constitution prohibits reducing circuit court judgesí pay midterm. Apparently, Allen County council members voted for the pay cuts without first consulting an attorney. Council members are scheduled to revisit their vote this week and it appears that their vote approving the pay cuts will be rescinded. Thatís good news for judges and magistrates and also for all of the members of Allen County.
County judges and magistrates receive salaries that are paid by the state. Those same judges and magistrates each receive additional compensation from the county that ranges from $4,000 to $5,000. The current salary for a county judge is in the neighborhood of $126,000. Nationally, Indiana trial court judges rank 34th out of the 50 states and District of Columbia for judicial pay. That lands Indiana in the bottom third. Not horrible, but also not real impressive. Proper incentives and compensation can attract skilled attorneys to leave private practice. Judicial officers donít get into that kind of work for the money. Many judges and magistrates could earn more in the private sector. Cut their pay and we risk losing the services of these well-qualified judicial officers. I donít think a lot of turnover on the bench is healthy for our legal system. Judicial officers should know what to expect as compensation. They shouldnít have to show up for work one day only to learn that they will be paid several thousand dollars less.
Suing or getting sued isnít fun. Getting charged with a crime or receiving an eviction notice is no joy either. Very few litigants find pleasure within the judicial system. Courts can be like emergency rooms or physiciansí offices for many. People would rather not be there and are thrilled when they can leave. But cutting your doctorís pay wonít improve the overall patient experience. The same is true for judges. Would it make sense to cut the compensation of an airline mechanic and pilot all in an effort to save $5 off of the cost of an airline ticket? I think most people would rather pay the full cost of the ticket and have confidence that the pilot and the mechanics were competent (and happy).
Those ever growing caseloads impact all of us, not just attorneys. Many people want their day in court. Judges are the people that allow that to happen. Traffic tickets, criminal charges, labor and land disputes, foreclosures, divorce petitions, custody hearing are just a few examples of they types of cases that require competent judicial officers. Take misdemeanor and traffic court, for example. Two judicial officers will hear well over 10,000 cases each year. Small claims court deals with even more volume. That type of caseload requires competency and proficiency and our judicial officers deliver.
When a person sues someone else there is a really good chance that both sides consider that dispute a very big deal. When two parents are litigating over who will have custody of their children, both parents will typically acknowledge nothing in their lives would take priority over the outcome of that case. A person held in jail or a victim of a crime understandably fixates on how their cases will be resolved by the court. I could go on with these types of examples. The bottom line is that judges and magistrates deal everyday with critically important issues. They must rely on their expertise and acumen in an effort to understand the facts and apply the law. Judges and magistrates arenít just lawyers who decide to do that for a handful or so years. Many judicial officers have years and years of experience on the bench. Many will retire some day after spending the vast majority of their professional life in service on the bench. Like the pilot or the airplane mechanic, they get better at what they do over time. The judges and magistrates werenít asking the county for an increase in their pay this year. They should, however, at the very least get paid what they were told they would be paid.