Panel asked for pay raises to address Supreme Court 'crisis'

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Michigan’s Supreme Court on Jan. 1, 2019:  L-R by row from top, justices  Brian Zahra,  Richard Bernstein, Megan Cavanagh, Elizabeth Clement, David Viviano, Bridget Mary McCormack and chief justice Stephen Markman.

Lansing — Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget McCormack is urging a state panel to help address what she called a “crisis in judicial pay” by raising salaries to help attract and retain talented judges. 

The 2019 State Officers Compensation Commission met Tuesday morning for the first time to review economic data, budget proposals and pay rates for governor, lieutenant governor, Supreme Court justices, lawmakers, the attorney general and secretary of state.

The panel recommended raises for state officials in 2017, including a 10 percent raise for Supreme Court justices. But the Republican-led state Legislature did not act on their suggestions, rendering the deliberations moot. It’s a pattern that has been repeated every two years.

Asking state legislators to vote on their own pay “becomes a political exercise,” Chairman Joseph Smalley said Tuesday as the commission decided to  seek guidance from Attorney General Dana Nessel on its constitutional ability to draft multiple resolutions so the Legislature could consider Supreme Court pay independently of other offices.

“We found the issue,” Smalley said. “It’s how do we maybe overcome that issue to help (convince) the best and brightest in our state to serve.”

McCormack, in an April 8 letter, again urged the commission to address what will be a 19-year salary freeze for Michigan Supreme Court justices, who earn $164,610 a year but have not received a raise since 2002.  

Over the same period, pay for state employees grew 40 percent and nationwide average salaries for state justices rose 46 percent, she said. Meanwhile, inflation has increased roughly 33 percent in Michigan.

Michigan will “soon be the only state where its intermediate appellate court judges are paid more than its Supreme Court justices,” McCormack wrote, echoing concerns raised two years ago by then-Chief Justice Stephen Markman.

The Legislature approved a law allowing trial court and intermediate appellate court judges to receive annual cost-of-living adjustments, “but the crisis in judicial pay has only worsened on our court,” McCormack said.

In her letter, the chief justice acknowledged past raise recommendations have not received a vote in the Legislature.

“An appropriate increase for the Supreme Court has been tied to an increase for term-limited state officers who are understandably hesitant to vote for their own salary increase,” she wrote. “I am hopeful that you can shape your recommendation with this in mind.”

No other state officials or residents spoke in support or opposition to potential pay increases during the public meeting Tuesday morning in Lansing.

Michigan legislators cut their own pay and that of most other state officials in 2011, but the compensation commission last year recommended reversing many of the cuts and raising Supreme Court justice pay 10 percent.

Doing so would have increased the salary for the governor from $159,300 to $177,000, for lieutenant governor from $111,510 to $123,900, for Supreme Court justices from $164,610 to $181,071, for the attorney general from $112,410 to $124,900 and for secretary of state from $112,410 to $124,900.

But past recommendations have “fallen on deaf ears,” said compensation commission member James Hallan of East Lansing, who first raised the possibility of drafting multiple resolutions.

Guidance from the Attorney General’s office would be “helpful," he said. “We’re really caught in a bind. It’s really a political decision on whether or not the Legislature’s going to act. It’s very troubling to me that the Court of Appeals salary will exceed the Supremes next year.”

The State Officers Compensation Commission is constitutionally required to make its final recommendations by June 15.