County judges make case for pay increase

State salary commission considering a 2% hike

By Stevie Mathieu, Columbian assistant metro editor

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Contact the commission

The Washington Citizens’ Commission on Salaries for Elected Officials is accepting written comment on proposed salaries until May 22.

Comments can be mailed to the commission at PO Box 43120, Olympia, WA 98504.

The commission’s toll free phone number is (866) 809-8116, and the commission’s director, Teri Wright, may be emailed at TWright@salaries.wa.gov.

Superior Court judges from Clark and Cowlitz counties painted pictures of their hectic professional lives on Wednesday evening, as they advocated for a bump in pay before the citizen commission that sets elected officials' salaries.

Cowlitz County Superior Court Judge Steve Warning said he works 11-hour days, without a lunch break, and tries to accomplish his daily tasks with limited support staff. His duties have changes significantly because more and more people are representing themselves in court rather than hiring a lawyer.

"The number of people representing themselves has just blossomed," Warning said. Everyday people don't understand the law like a lawyer does, so "you've got to walk through it with them."

If the state wants to attract the best and brightest to run for judicial positions, it should seriously consider increasing the pay for those gigs, Warning said. Many lawyers from the private sector would make excellent judges and would add diversity to the bench, but many say they can't afford the pay cut, he added.

"Even in tough times, good lawyers make good money," Warning said. "We are losing good judges … for economic reasons."

Warning's testimony was part of a public-comment meeting in Vancouver before the Washington State Citizens' Commission on Salaries for Elected Officials. The commission has proposed new elected officials' salaries for the next two years, but they won't finalize anything until May.

This year, the commission is not recommending raises for legislators or the governor, but it is recommending 2 percent pay increases for all state judges, the commissioner of public land, the insurance commissioner and the superintendent of public instruction. The salary schedule for the year starts Sept. 1.

In Sept. 1 of 2014, the commission is recommending an additional 3 percent raise for all judges and the superintendent of public instruction. Superior Court judges currently earn a $148,832 annual salary.

Roughly 10 people showed up to the public-comment meeting on Wednesday, most of them judges. Clark County Superior Court Judge Barbara Johnson told the commission that a judge's work also carries an emotional toll. She referenced the recent case she presided over in which Sandra and Jeffrey Weller were convicted of abusing and starving their adopted children.

"These things are difficult to hear," Johnson said. It's important to make sure the state attracts qualified judges who can handle sensitive and traumatic cases, she added.

During the Wednesday meeting, members of the citizen commission wrestled with the appropriateness of increasing judges' salaries.

Commission member Dick Walter said judges certainly aren't the only people working harder these days. During an economic recession, everyone has to do more with less, he said. Walter also pointed out that other states don't pay their judges as much as Washington state does -- how, then, can commissioners defend a pay increase to taxpayers?

Commission member Gregory Dallaire said that the commission compares its judges' wages to the significantly higher salaries of federal judges. That federal salary should remain the benchmark, rather than the low standards set by other cash-strapped states, he said.

Johnson told the commission that she's heard lawyers express interest in becoming a judge in Oregon. They would quickly follow that thought with: "but have you seen their salary schedule?" Johnson said. She also said well-qualified judges would much rather work in federal courts because they're paid better and have several staff members to assist them.

The commission's final salaries for elected officials will be adopted at a meeting in Olympia on May 22.

The citizen salary commission was created through a voter initiative in 1986. It is responsible for setting the salaries of state elected officials, including legislators, members of the state's executive branch, and state Supreme Court justices. The Washington Constitution prevents the commission from reducing the pay of state elected officials.

The salary commission must keep the wages fair, competitive and in line with each official's duties.

In 2011, the Legislature approved a 3 percent pay cut for most state employees, and encouraged the state's elected officials to voluntarily reduce their own pay. Since then, a few legislators tried unsuccessfully to pass constitutional amendments that would allow the salary commission to decrease the pay of state elected officials.

Most legislators' salaries are $42,106 a year. Those legislators serving in caucus leadership positions earn up to $8,000 more.

Some legislators from Clark County, including state Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center; Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver; and Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, have either taken a voluntary pay decrease or given a percentage of their pay to charity.

Stevie Mathieu: 360-735-4523 or www.facebook.com/reportermathieu or www.twitter.com/col_politics or stevie.mathieu@columbian.com