Arkansas judges and prosecutors are asking the state commission that sets their pay for a 3% cost-of-living salary increase.
Chief Justice Dan Kemp told the Independent Citizens Commission on Wednesday that he would "like to see the judges get a comparable increase with the other employees of the state."
In June, Gov. Asa Hutchinson authorized state agencies to use 3% of their total payroll costs for employee raises. The pay increases varied based on performance, and most state employees received raises between 2.8% and 3%, according to Kay Barnhill, director of the state Office of Personnel Management. There isn't a performance evaluation process for judges and prosecutors.
Hamilton Singleton, president of the state's Judicial Council, said the state has experienced its highest-ever circuit judge turnover and the pay increase is needed to attract and retain talented judges.
"We will continue to be losing senior judges from our ranks, and we've got to have something for which lawyers are trying to actually give up their practice to go out and try to become a circuit judge, and if the salaries don't remain competitive then I think it's going to be very hard to get the kind of judges that you're going to be looking for," Singleton told the commission.
Judicial salaries in Arkansas generally fall in the middle when compared with those nationally, according to a July 2021 survey by the National Center for State Courts.
Justices are paid $184,588 a year, while the chief justice gets $199,344.
Judges on the Court of Appeals make $179,123 annually, and the chief judge is paid $181,855.
Circuit judges make $174,882, and state district judges are paid $153,022.
Prosecuting attorneys in Division A are paid $166,138 annually, and those in Division B make $141,217.
The state has 126 circuit judges, 12 judges on the Court of Appeals and seven justices on the Supreme Court. Singleton said the judiciary is funded by 1% of the state's budget.
In discussing the judicial leaders' request, members of the commission were mixed on how current economic conditions should affect the decision of whether to grant the raises.
"I'm all for everybody getting a raise, OK. It's just, how much do we give considering what's going on in our world today? The government's handing out money like it's cotton candy, and that's not always going to continue so there's going to be a day of reckoning," Phillip Fletcher of Bentonville said. "We have to be very careful, very conservative about what we raise ... because we could have a correction and we may be asking for 3% back."
Jan Zimmerman of Little Rock said she doubted members of the state's judiciary were receiving federal aid, and cited the increased cost-of-living expenses.
"I'm paying more for groceries, and I think with the fact that our judiciary has been on the front lines fighting to keep the courts open and doing a great job day by day, that we need to think very favorably about the 3% that they are asking of us," she said.
The commission plans to meet to consider the request on Sept. 8.