UPDATED: House committee rejects judicial pay raises

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Photo credit: A.D. Modlin

(Updated late Wednesday to add more reporting; clarifies previous raises for court staffers with edits throughout)

The House budget-writing committee on Wednesday set aside a request for a 25% pay raise for judges with some lawmakers saying it was too much at a time when the economy is in distress.

The House Appropriations Comittee turned down the judiciary’s request for $9.4 million to  raise judges’ salaries, which are among some of the lowest in the country.

The panel approved $10.8 million for pay raises for court staffers and another $4.3 million for 70 full-time court service officers, more commonly known as probation officers.

The pay raise for court administrative staff would be phased in over two years.

The Senate has yet to consider the judiciary’s budget.

“This is a system that is struggling and it’s affecting other areas of the state,” said Republican Rep. Susan Concannon of Beloit.

“Who are we hurting? If you’re trying to hurt the Supreme Court, we’re not hurting them. We’re hurting Kansans,” Concannon said.

Democratic state Rep. Kathy Wolfe Moore characterized the pay situation for the courts as reaching a “crisis point.”

“We have gotten ourselves so out of kilter that we are not able to attract those employees,” Wolfe Moore said. “It is at a crisis level.”

The Kansas City lawmaker said there’s a mismatch between the duties and skills required in the court system and the pay scale.

“As long as we have that mismatch, we’re going to have a terrible crisis.”

Yet, some Republican lawmakers saw the proposed increase for judicial salaries as excessive, especially during a time when unemployment is higher than normal and businesses have been forced to close during the pandemic.

Critics pointed out that justices on the Supreme Court – not counting the chief justice – would see their salaries rise to $182,561 a year from $145,641, salaries for appeals court judges would increase to $176,668 from $140,040 and district judges’ salaries would be raised to $161,245 a year from $128,245.

Judges last received a 2.5% pay raise in 2020, 2% in 2019 and 2.5% 2018, according to legislative researchers.

Court staffers received 2.5% increases in 2018 and 2020 and a 5% increase in 2019.

The pay raise for judges in 2018 was the first bump after nine years.

“It’s hard to swallow all of this when we’ve got people that have lost their businesses, their homes and their jobs. We’ve got other areas in the budget that we’re not funding,” said Republican state Rep. Brenda Landwehr of Wichita.

Landwehr dismissed any notion that her opposition was driven by antipathy toward the Supreme Court, which over the years has been at odds with the Legislature over employee pay raises and judicial decisions that were seen as overreaching.

“I don’t make this decision based on decisions that have come out of the Supreme Court,” Landwehr said. “We do have a new Supreme Court. I have had some great discussions with our chief justice and I am looking forward for how things will progress in the future.

“But it has specifically to do with the fact that we’re going to have limited funds. We need to see the needs in these other budgets,” she said.

At one point, state Rep. Troy Waymaster unsuccessfully tried to limit the salary increases for judges to 2.5%, the same as what the governor is proposing for all state employees.

And Landwehr tried unsuccessfully to put off the consideration of all state employee pay raises until the Legislature puts the entire budget together.

The pay raise was recommended by the General Government Budget Committee, which recommended a phased approach to the judicial branch’s request.

Republican state Rep. Bill Sutton said the committee thought it was time to add more money for pay raises after the judicial branch went nine years without an increase before getting one in 2018.

The Kansas Bar Association urged lawmakers to pass a pay increase, particularly for the court’s administrative staff.

“Because of low pay, it is challenging for courts to recruit and keep staff,” Bar Association lobbyist Joe Molina told lawmakers in written testimony.

“In fact, some long-term employees take home less per paycheck today than they did in
2010,” he said.

“Pay stagnation is a significant issue for the judicial branch and leads to qualified employees leaving the court for better paying opportunities.”

Judicial pay is not a new issue for the lawmakers.

In 2019, six trial judges asked the Kansas Supreme Court to order the Kansas Legislature to put millions of dollars more funding into judicial salaries.

The judges, along with an administrative assistant, filed a lawsuit arguing that the Legislature had violated the constitutional separation of powers by chronically underfunding the judicial branch.

The judges contended the lack of sufficient funding has undercut the judicial branch’s ability to operate as a coequal branch of government.

In 2018, the Kansas judicial branch released an updated version of a study showing that pay for nearly every job classification within the court system was below market levels.

And another survey showed that salaries for district judges were among the lowest in the country.

The Supreme Court dismissed the lawsuit after concluding that “difficult evidentiary and legal issues” would take an extensive amount of time to resolve the case.

The justices also extended a legal olive branch to the Legislature, saying they didn’t want to infringe on its budget-making authority.