A need to hike pay for judges in state

By David H. Fink

It’s time to do something about judicial compensation in this state. Michigan judges haven’t had a pay increase since 2002. During that time, the Consumer Price Index has increased more than 25 percent, and the pay for non-elected state employees has essentially kept pace with inflation.
As a Commissioner serving on the State Officers Compensation Commission (SOCC), I proposed in 2011 a modest increase in what we pay our State Supreme Court justices—a 3 percent increase in 2013 and a 3 percent increase in 2014. Because the salary for all Michigan judges is tied to the salary of Supreme Court justices, this change would have increased pay for all Michigan state court judges. While a majority of my colleagues on SOCC supported this pay increase, it could only become effective with an affirmative vote by the State Legislature. Unfortunately, in the 2011-12 legislative session, our elected legislators chose to ignore SOCC’s Determination.

SOCC determines salaries for the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Secretary of State, Attorney General, legislators and justices of the Supreme Court. For many years, SOCC Determinations automatically became effective if they were not rejected by a two-thirds vote of both houses of the Legislature. That changed with a 2002 amendment to our State Constitution. Since 2002, SOCC Determinations become effective only if they are approved by both houses of the State Legislature. Of course, in the era of term limits and the 24-hour news cycle, pay increases for Michigan’s elected officials have been held hostage to political grandstanding. In fact, since 2002, the only change in compensation for State Officers has been a 10 percent reduction for the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Secretary of State, Attorney General, and members of the Legislature.

Legislators, who gave such short shrift to our proposed pay increase for judges, no doubt would argue that the cost to the state is too great. But what about the cost to the state of an underpaid judiciary?  There were no legislative hearings, no committee reports, no public consideration of the pros and cons of continuing the decade-long freeze of judicial pay-just a statement by one legislator’s spokesperson that this was not the time for a pay increase. 

It’s too late now for ratification of these 2013 and 2014 pay increases. But, SOCC makes another Determination this year, and we will be considering judicial pay for 2015 and 2016. Our next meeting is May 21, and we have invited Michigan’s highest elected officials and legislative leaders to offer their perspectives. Now is the time for attorneys who believe in a strong, independent judiciary to speak out too. Attorneys—particularly those who regularly appear in our trial and appellate courts—should provide SOCC with their informed perspective on how Michigan’s judges should be compensated.

Last month, at SOCC’s first meeting, several of us again expressed our support for an increase in judicial compensation, and a SOCC determination to increase judicial salaries in 2015 and 2016 may be received more enthusiastically than our last recommendation. This year, unlike 2011, the State Court Administrative Office supports a pay increase. In fact, State Court Administrator Chad Schmucker, testifying in support of recommendation for two, 3 percent increases, pointed out that, during the current extended period when compensation for Michigan’s trial court bench remained unchanged, trial courts in other states received a total of approximately 250 raises.  Significantly, the State Bar of Michigan endorsed SCAO’s position, with a statement supporting an increase “to make up for the lost earning capacity from more than a decade of salary stagnation.”

Even if the legislature affirms a new SOCC Determination to increase compensation for Michigan’s judiciary, that increase will not be effective until January 2015—some 13 years after the last pay adjustment. In the long run, can we really expect the best attorneys to seek a job with a salary that never increases? As the real income of our judges declines each year, eventually, it will be unrealistic to expect most good lawyers to seek these positions. At some point, the only men and women who will be able to afford to sit as state judges will be the very wealthy, who don’t need significant income, and the very unsuccessful, who can’t do better in private practice. Is that really what we want?

You can address your comments regarding judicial compensation to the following address: State Officers Compensation Commission, Capitol Commons Center, 400 South Pine Street, Lansing, MI 4890 or to the following web address, MCSC-SOCC@michigan.gov.

Some people say that in tough economic times increasing judicial salaries sends the wrong message. I believe it sends exactly the right message—regardless of our current financial circumstances, we believe in justice, and we want proper compensation for judges who make critical decisions that affect each of us every day.


David H. Fink is the Managing Partner of Bloomfield Hills-based Fink + Associates Law and a member of the State Officers Compensation Commission (SOCC).  He also serves on the State Bar of Michigan Committee on Judicial Qualifications.  Fink, a 1974 magna cum laude graduate of Harvard College, is a 1977 cum laude graduate of Harvard Law School.