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Legislature might bump up Michigan Supreme Court pay

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Something that hasn't occurred in nearly two decades could soon happen in Michigan's Capitol: Lawmakers might vote to give a state elected official a salary hike.

This week, the state House approved a resolution that would increase the pay of Michigan Supreme Court justices by about 10%. The House's voice vote, which was done without lawmakers having their individual positions recorded, broke with the Legislature's tradition of shunning proposals to increase elected officials' pay.

State elected officials haven't received salary increases since 2002 — the year voters approved a proposal that made it more difficult to enact pay hikes.

That long period without salary increases has made the current proposal "critical" to the Michigan Supreme Court, explained Joseph Smalley, who chairs the State Officers Compensation Commission.

State elected officials haven't received salary increases since 2002.

"These are the best and brightest folks that serve for the public’s good," Smalley said. "And we should be attracting and retaining the best talent."

The commission is in charge of recommending salary adjustments for the governor, the lieutenant governor, the secretary of state, the attorney general, lawmakers and the Supreme Court justices.

In 2000, the compensation commission recommended large increases, including a 35% increase for members of the Legislature, according to a 2002 report from the Michigan Legislative Service Bureau. The state House rejected those proposed increases, but the Senate didn't vote on them, allowing the increases to go into effect.

That led to backlash. And eventually, the Legislature approved a proposal for the statewide ballot that would require affirmative votes from both the House and Senate for the compensation commission's recommendations to be implemented. The proposal passed with 72 percent support in August 2002.

Since then, 17 years later, the salaries of state elected officials — many of whom don't want to be seen as giving themselves raises — have decreased. During the national financial crisis, lawmakers agreed in 2009 with recommendations that salaries be decreased by 10 percent. The decreases didn't impact Supreme Court justices.

This year, the compensation commission recommended pay increases for only Supreme Court justices. It hoped the Legislature would be willing to approve the court pay increases because lawmakers wouldn't be hiking their own pay, Smalley said.

The compensation commission recommended increasing Supreme Court justices pay by 5% in 2021 and another 5% in 2022. The overall increase would be about 10.2%. Currently, justices each make $164,610 a year. Under the recommendations, they would make $181,483 by 2022.

According to data from the National Center for State Courts, the $181,483 salary would give Michigan the 24th highest Supreme Court salary in the nation. But that's only if other states don't increase their courts' pay before Michigan's increases take effect.

Currently, Michigan ranks 35th, according to the data.

As Smalley noted, without the increase, Michigan Supreme Court justices' pay would soon dip below the pay of Court of Appeals of judges whose salaries are set differently and receive annual increases.

As of October 2019, Court of Appeals judges make $163,909.

Earlier this year, Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget McCormack acknowledged that fact in a letter, asking the compensation commission to increase justices' pay. She labeled the situation a "crisis in judicial pay."

Michigan Supreme Court Justice Bridget McCormack

The Michigan House approved a resolution, sponsored by Rep. Graham Filler to enact the compensation commission's recommendation on Wednesday.

Filler, R-DeWitt, said Court of Appeals judges simply shouldn't be making more money than Supreme Court justices. Filler said he had heard "very little push back" to his resolution.

Rep. Steven Johnson, R-Wayland, was the lone lawmaker to oppose the proposal when it was before the House Judiciary Committee. Johnson said people don't run for the Supreme Court because of the paycheck. He said it's a political office.

"I view this as a pay raise for politicians," Johnson said.

The Senate didn't act on the resolution before casting its last votes of 2019. Amber McCann, a spokeswoman for Sen. Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, said the Senate didn't view the resolution as something that had to get done before the end of the year.

The proposed pay increases wouldn't take effect until 2021.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer makes $159,300 with a $54,000 expense allowance. Members of the Legislature who aren't in leadership make $71,685 with a $10,800 expense allowance.

Staff Writer Beth LeBlanc contributed.