Kansas Chamber backs judicial raises

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Law concept - Law book with a wooden judges gavel on table in a courtroom or law enforcement office

The Kansas Chamber of Commerce is putting its political muscle behind proposals to increase pay for state judges and other court staffers by about $13 million in an effort to make judicial salaries more competitive.

It is believed to be the first time the chamber has weighed in on the issue of judicial salaries in Kansas.

“It is important for Kansas businesses to have a strong legal climate comprised of the state’s best legal minds and for the state to maintain a competitive compensation structure for judicial employees,” said Alan Cobb, the chamber’s president and CEO.

“All state services are important to adequately serve all constitutional obligations of the state, including the judicial branch,” Cobb said in an email.

“We only have one pie of tax revenue to divide among all state agencies. Kansas simply cannot have one agency or service take funding priority over another to the point where other critical services suffer as a result,” he said.

The chamber quietly made its support known around the Capitol for $10.8 million in salaries for court staff and $1.9 million for state judges.

A 2020 national survey by the National Center for State Courts found that Kansas district judge pay ranked 48th out of 50 states in actual and adjusted salary.

The state’s trial lawyers organization welcomed the chamber’s support.

“The fact that both our organizations are supporting adequate funding of our courts is a clear indication of just how important an issue this is for our state,” said Callie Denton, executive director of the Kansas Trial Lawyers Association.

The raises are mired in budget negotiations between the House and the Senate. The House recommended the raises. The Senate has not.

Republican Sen. Rick Billinger of Goodland, chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said there are questions about the timing for any government pay raises.

He said the state has been struggling through a pandemic that has led to a number of business shutdowns, including some that may never reopen.

He said its sends a bad message for giving pay raises at a time when taxpayers have been fighting to get through the pandemic.

“I’m not saying that any of these raises aren’t justified,” Billinger said, “I’m just saying that’s kind of the sentiment of the committee.”

The raises for court staff would be limited to 12%.

State judges and justices on the state Supreme Court would get a 5% salary increase in each year for fiscal years 2022 through 2024.

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.

The Supreme Court’s chief justice make $149,290 a year, while the associate justices on the court earn $145,641.

The chief Court of Appeals is paid $144,403 a year, while judges receive $140,940.

District court judges earn $128,636 year, while the chief judge is paid $129,940. District magistrate judges are paid $66,170.

Republican state Rep. Troy Waymaster, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, thought the chamber’s support for the salary increases might help make the case for why they’re needed.

“It’s obviously going to better our case,” Waymaster said in an interview.

“For the business culture across the state of Kansas, you want to have knowledgeable people on the bench when you’re dealing with business cases that might be presented in a courtroom,” he said.

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.