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Arkansas justices seeking 11% raise; smaller rise asked for other judges

By Michael R. Wickline

This article was published May 17, 2017 at 4:30 a.m.

arkansas-supreme-court-chief-justice-dan-kemp-right-is-shown-with-his-wife-susan-in-this-file-photo

Arkansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Dan Kemp (right) is shown with his wife, Susan, in this file photo.


Circuit Judge David Guthrie of El Dorado, president of the Arkansas Judicial Council.

The Arkansas Supreme Court wants the commission that sets the pay of elected state officials to boost the annual salaries of the chief justice to $199,800 and the six justices to $184,815, an 11 percent increase, Chief Justice Dan Kemp told the commission on Tuesday.

With three of its seven members absent from Tuesday's meeting, the Independent Citizens Commission decided to delay any decisions on proposing pay raises for any officials until its next meeting next month.

Two years ago, the commission increased the salaries of the chief justice from $161,601 to $180,000 and the six justices from $149,589 to $166,500, and raised the pay for other judges. At that time, representatives for the judges testified that their salaries had fallen behind because of a three-year period in which they went without cost-of-living raises while judicial salaries in comparable states continued to rise.

Last year, the commission decided not to grant raises to any officials.

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The Independent Citizens Commission was created as part of Amendment 94 to the Arkansas Constitution, which voters approved in November 2014. Amendment 94 also extended the period of time that state lawmakers may serve, barred state officials from accepting certain gifts from lobbyists, and barred corporate and union contributions to state elected officials.

Kemp told the commission Tuesday that "what the judicial branch is proposing" is a 2 percent salary increase for district judges, circuit judges and members of the Court of Appeals and that the state Supreme Court "respectfully requests an increase of 11 percent."

According to a copy of Kemp's two-page proposal, a 2 percent raise would boost the annual salaries for:

• District judges from $140,000 to $142,800. Before their last raise two years ago, they were paid $125,495.

• Circuit judges from $160,000 to $163,200. Before their last raise two years ago, they were paid $140,372.

• Court of Appeals' judges from $161,500 to $164,730 and the court's chief judge from $164,000 to $167,280. Before their last raise two years ago, judges were paid $144,982 and the chief judge was paid $147,286.

Kemp's proposal compared the $166,500 annual salaries of Arkansas justices with the $168,045 salaries of their peers in Louisiana, $170,544 in Iowa, $172,017 in Missouri and $182,688 in Tennessee as of Jan. 1, 2017, citing the National Center for State Courts as the source of this information.

The annual pay for justices in Arkansas' other surrounding states is $145,914 in Oklahoma, $152,250 in Mississippi and $168,000 in Texas, according to the center's website.

Louisiana, Iowa, Missouri and Tennessee were used two years ago in a comparison of the salaries for Arkansas' high court and "since the presentation of the salary request two years ago each of those four states have raised the salary of their Supreme Court justices," Kemp said.

He said that this request would make the salaries of the Arkansas justices comparable with their peers' pay in these states.

State government has been working on raising salaries of attorneys to make them more competitive with the private sector, and the University of Arkansas general counsel salary last fall rose from $132,767 to $190,656 a year, Kemp said.

Kemp's proposal also stated Arkansas is the only state in modern U.S. history to review seven death row appeals within a two-week period.

Asked after the meeting if these death row appeals were part of the reason for seeking the raises for justices, Kemp told reporters, "Partially, yes.

"You expect to have one appeal every once in a while. Probably a couple a year is what you figure going in. To have seven or eight within a two-week period is unprecedented," he said.

During Tuesday's meeting, Commissioner Barbara Graves of Little Rock said she wondered whether each group of judges has the same retirement and health insurance packages.

Kemp said judges have the same health insurance package that the state offers, but district judges have a separate retirement plan from the other judges.

Graves questioned how the judges' benefit packages in Iowa, Louisiana, Missouri and Tennessee compare with those in Arkansas.

Kemp said he didn't know.

"I know currently Arkansas ranks 29th in the nation as far as salary for justices of the Supreme Court, and [with] these raises still be within the norm," he said.

Arkansas' per capita personal income of $39,345 ranks 45th in the nation, according to a U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis report in March 2017.

Asked if there is a reason that Arkansas justices should be treated better compared with the average Arkansan regarding their rank in the nation for salaries, Kemp told reporters that "not necessarily.

"It is just a matter that with any judge or justice you got an education process to go through. A college graduate. You got to go through law school. You got to pass the bar exam. You got to be in practice for eight years before you are eligible to run for the Supreme Court," he said.

During Tuesday's meeting, Commissioner Chuck Banks of Little Rock said he wants to know whether judges' benefits include mileage.

Kemp said all judges receive mileage for travel except for the justices.

Circuit Judge David Guthrie of El Dorado, president of the Arkansas Judicial Council, said the council favors 2 percent pay increases for all judges. The council includes circuit judges and members of the Arkansas Supreme Court and Arkansas Court of Appeals as well as retirees.

"It is consistent with the economic indicators. We think it is modest, reasonable and certainly appropriate," he said.

Two years ago, the commission granted raises to judges that were "substantial and significant for which we are most grateful," Guthrie said.

"It was generated because of a failure in the preceding years off and on to have these COLA [cost-of-living adjustment] increases, and the salary level in real money then fell behind economic indicators and a substantial increase was therefore necessary," he said.

"We think that simply staying with COLA increases may be a little more palatable to the view of your work and certainly to the taxpayer. We do not like as judges to come hat in hand seeking these increases," Guthrie said.

A cost-of-living increase would keep judges' salaries competitive with the private market, he said.

"These are contentious times that we have. Courts continue to receive problems for resolution that used to be resolved in other matters. We need the best and the brightest solving those problems and that would keep us competitive," Guthrie said.

Asked about the state Supreme Court asking for 11 percent raises, Guthrie told reporters that "I cannot speak for the Judicial Council because that issue was not before us.

"The only authority I had from our telephone conference last week was to request a 2 percent [increase] for all judges," he said.

No representatives of state lawmakers, the state's seven constitutional officers nor prosecuting attorneys spoke to the commission regarding requests for pay raises.

Graves said she worried that the salaries of the state's elected officials will fall behind if the commission allows "every year go by and we don't do anything.

"So I do think that the 2 percent is an appropriate and a reasonable request and, as we consider this in a future meeting, I think the same 2 percent should be looked at for all these categories," she said.

At the suggestion of Commissioner Mitch Berry of Little Rock, the commission decided to ask state and Bureau of Legislative Research officials to attend its next meeting to explain the overhaul of the state government pay plan in the fiscal year starting July 1.

Besides Banks, Berry and Graves, Commissioner Brenda James of Little Rock attended Tuesday's meeting. Banks said Commissioner Larry Ross of Little Rock had an ill relative and Commissioners Stephen Tipton of Cabot and Stuart Hill of Searcy each had a work conflict.

A Section on 05/17/2017

Print Headline: Justices seeking 11% raise; 2% rise asked for other judges; panel’s decision off till June

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Comments on: Arkansas justices seeking 11% raise; smaller rise asked for other judges

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Displaying 1 - 7 of 7 total comments

information19 says... May 17, 2017 at 6:01 a.m.

ridiculous

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JIMBOB47 says... May 17, 2017 at 6:35 a.m.

So.. this pompous ass thinks they deserve an 11% raise because they actually had to do what they're supposed to do (death row appeals)? I vote we send his sorry ass off to one of the other states he lists. You chose the position and you knew the salaries. Live with it or LEAVE! No one 'deserves' an 11% increase. If Arkansas is 45th in per capita income, but the judges are 29th, I'd say you're already way ahead. Maybe we should REDUCE your over-paid, bloated position!!!

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Happy1234 says... May 17, 2017 at 8:19 a.m.

What an insult to the taxpayer.
Pay should go up based on merit.
Prove to me they merit a pay raise.
IMO they are already overpaid.

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libertas2u says... May 17, 2017 at 9:06 a.m.

Another reason trial court and higher judges should not be elected.

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NoUserName says... May 17, 2017 at 10:30 a.m.

^ The implication being, what, that appointed judges won't ask for a raise? Yeah, sure...

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woowhoo says... May 17, 2017 at 11:22 a.m.

When was the last time rank-and-file state employees got a pay raise?

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gohogs17 says... May 17, 2017 at 1:47 p.m.

Bless their hearts....makes me wanna' cry.

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