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story.lead_photo.caption Circuit Judge Shawn Womack speaks Wednesday to the Independent Citizens Commission. ( Gavin Lesnick)

Judges in Arkansas have seen their salaries increase at a smaller rate than many surrounding states in recent years and not raising the pay could expose the state to a lawsuit, the legislative chairman of the Arkansas Judicial Council told the panel tasked with setting salaries for elected officials.

Shawn Womack, who is also a circuit judge in Baxter County, spoke to the Independent Citizens Commission on Wednesday, saying he didn't have a specific salary recommendation for what judicial employees in the council should make but noting the current salaries have lagged behind surrounding states.

The Judicial Council is composed of the Arkansas Supreme Court justices, Arkansas Court of Appeals judges and 121 circuit judges.

Womack told the members that general jurisdiction judicial salaries increased 15 percent from 2004 to 2013, compared with jumps of 43 percent in Tennessee, 36 percent in Texas, 35 percent in Louisiana, 30 percent in Oklahoma and 18 percent in Missouri.

"Of all of our surrounding states, only Mississippi has moved less than Arkansas," he said. "We're pretty quickly losing ground."

Judge pay currently ranges from $140,372 made by circuit judges to $161,601 paid annually to the chief justice of the state Supreme Court.

Womack also told the seven-member panel about a federal lawsuit that recently resulted in a 14 percent salary increase for federal judges. The plaintiffs in that case argued successfully that a lack of cost-of-living increases violated a constitutional provision that a judge's salary cannot be diminished.

Womack noted the Arkansas constitution has a similar provision.

"That's something we certainly could be exposed to potentially," he said.

Womack also told the board judges require significant education and experience but frequently make less money than attorneys who go into private practice.

Commission member Mitch Berry said there have been "robust races" for judicial seats, suggesting there is interest in the seats at the current pay. Womack said there are usually only a handful of such races across the state each election season.

"We probably have a lot of talent sitting on the sideline that doesn't run because they can make a whole lot more money" in private practice, he said.

Board members asked Womack to submit in writing a recommendation on what the salaries should be for the different judges and justices within the Judicial Council. He said he would consult with the council's board before doing so.

Also Wednesday, state Rep. Kim Hendren, R-Gravette, spoke to the commission and asked them not to raise the salaries of state lawmakers to a level which would allow legislators to use the elected position as a full-time job, saying doing so could compromise the nature of a "citizens' legislature."

"Just be careful about that," he said of the committee's role in setting pay levels. "Because when we become a full-time legislature, folks, you're going to throw a lot of us out of here. I have cattle, I have chickens, I work, I build fences and, ladies and gentlemen, we ought to have a bunch of those folks in this legislature."

See Thursday's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette for full coverage of the meeting.

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Archived Comments

  • Goad
    January 14, 2015 at 11:20 a.m.

    Factory workers also lag behind every other state. Worry about them instead of elected officials. They don't have to run for office.

  • Dontcallmenames
    January 14, 2015 at 11:27 a.m.

    Judges who keep pushing through this gay "marriage" garbage don't deserve raises...they deserve to be removed!

  • LR1955
    January 14, 2015 at 11:41 a.m.

    I thought all the perks they got (gravel on their driveways, little bridges over their creeks, etc) counted for something.

  • llllllll
    January 14, 2015 at 11:53 a.m.

    With the recent amendments to the constitution who could not have seen this coming.. Pay raises for all. Come get it boys..Who cares what other states pay. If they paid less would these guys be asking for a pay cut...

  • Brassband
    January 14, 2015 at 12:24 p.m.

    Judges have not had meaningful pay raises in a number of years. Their pay has advanced less than other state employees, and other state employees have received only a couple of chump change (~1% or so) raises over the past about 5 years. Moreover, in the not too distant past their trial court assistants were wondering if they were going to get paid week-to-week. Yes circuit judges make more than most people who comment on these boards, but they also have far more responsibilities. And it costs quit a bit to run for office. Go to college for 7 years (and pay for it), then take a 2-1/2 day bar exam, and thereafter IF you pass you can run for the job (and very probably lose).

  • Morgancub
    January 14, 2015 at 12:33 p.m.

    Or we may sue !! I'm no legal eagle but that sounds like extortion ???

  • Jfish
    January 14, 2015 at 12:56 p.m.

    So how about publishing some average salaries for comparisons?

  • LR1955
    January 14, 2015 at 1:09 p.m.

    Villines Iii, Floyd G, County Judge, $91,592.80

  • Brassband
    January 14, 2015 at 3:36 p.m.

    A County Judge is the head of the county administration and is not a judge per se so the comparison is not meaningful. The Circuit Court judges actually make quite a bit north of what County Judges make but that does not diminish the Judge's argument. Blame the newspaper for not publishing comparative salaries.

  • PopMom
    January 14, 2015 at 4:11 p.m.

    You also have to look at the pension issue and how many years it takes to get full pension. If it is not very many, then it may not be so bad a deal. Many government workers make less than the private sector, but they have great pensions.

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