Chief Justice Minton says he'll ask General Assembly for pay raises, judicial redistricting in upcoming budget session

10/20/2017 05:23 PM

FRANKFORT – Kentucky Supreme Court Chief Justice John D. Minton told lawmakers Friday that he will seek judicial pay raises totaling 10 percent in the upcoming biennial budget, hoping to improve the judiciary’s ability to attract top attorneys to its ranks.

Circuit judges make more than $124,000, which ranks near the bottom nationally, and Administrative Office of the Courts Budget Director Carole Henderson says the proposed 5 percent raises in each year of the biennium will place judicial salaries in Kentucky at 39th in the U.S.

Minton told lawmakers on the Interim Joint Committee on Judiciary that if those numbers don’t improve, it’ll be harder to recruit attorneys from high-paying law practices to run for judicial posts. He also said current judges feel “discouraged and undervalued.”

“The longer we postpone attention to this, the more difficult it will be to catch up on lost wages and avoid diminishing the quality long-term of Kentucky’s judiciary,” Minton said during his state of the judiciary address, adding that he would also seek pay raises for circuit clerks and non-elected judicial branch workers.

Minton says pay isn’t the only thing that may keep quality lawyers off judicial ballots.

He expects moving newly elected judges to defined-contribution retirement accounts, as policymakers proposed this week to resolve unfunded pension liabilities of up to $64 billion, will make it more difficult to recruit candidates for the office.

“One of the goals under the old system was to make a pension such that persons would be willing to, after years of practice, be willing to come and accumulate a decent pension in order to make up for those years of earnings lost,” Minton told reporters after the meeting. “Well, the new system won’t do that, so it’s going to complicate and make more difficult our ability to attract people to the bench.”

Minton touched on a range of issues facing Kentucky’s judicial branch of government, such as how courts are grappling with the state’s opioid epidemic in criminal and civil cases, the judiciary’s attention on adoption cases, low daily allowances for jurors, technology initiatives.

But one that doesn’t get much buzz is judicial redistricting, which Minton says will be critical in the upcoming legislative session.

He says he will urge lawmakers to redistrict the state’s judicial circuits in the upcoming session for the first time since 1893, adding that some courts have significantly more cases on their dockets than others.

“There are some critical needs across the state where the system is overburdened and our citizens are not getting access to justice that they are entitled to have,” Minton said.

Sen. John Schickel, who has pushed for redrawing judicial boundaries in recent sessions, agreed and applauded Minton for his attention on the issue.

“In this age when we’re reducing pensions, I don’t think you can overstate of this issue in a coequal branch of government,” said Schickel, R-Union.

“I was provided a list the other day of workloads from different judicial districts, and every time you look at these lists you almost go into shock because you have certain areas of this state where judges are basically working part-time collecting a full-time salary, some of the largest salaries that state employees are paid, and then as you mentioned before, you have other parts of the state where judges are working double time, and it creates a horrible problem to equal access to law for all our citizens.”

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