By RICK BRUNDRETT
South Carolina’s higher-level judges would receive pay hikes ranging from 20 to 33 percent under a state Judicial Department budget proposal and separate Senate bill.
A revised 2018-19 budget plan submitted on Jan. 18 by the Judicial Department, which initially requested 10 percent across-the-board raises, would increase salaries for judges and justices by 20 percent, according to state Department of Administration records.
Judicial pay raises aren’t included in Gov. Henry McMaster’s proposed state budget for the next fiscal year that starts July 1. His budget plan for the state’s court system is nearly identical to the Judicial Department’s current total annual budget of $79.3 million. The House and Senate are working on their own budget versions.
Under a bill (S. 910) by Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington, annual salaries for Supreme Court justices, Court of Appeals judges, circuit and family court judges would jump by about 33 percent, based on formulas in the bill.
Malloy is chairman of a Senate Judiciary subcommittee that discussed his bill on Wednesday. The state Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office has not yet released a fiscal-impact statement on the bill, which also would change how pay is calculated for master-in-equity and magistrate judges, solicitors and circuit public defenders, and state Workers’ Compensation commissioners.
Malloy, who joined the Senate in 2002, served more than three years on the state Judicial Merit Selection Commission, a six-legislator, 10-member panel that screens and nominates judges for election in the General Assembly. South Carolina and Virginia are the only states where their legislatures play primary roles in electing judges.
The S.C. House speaker appoints half of the screening commission’s 10 members; the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman and Senate president pro tempore select three and two members, respectively. Sen. Luke Rankin, R-Horry and the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, is the screening commission’s current chairman; Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, is the vice-chairman.
In most cases, the Legislature can elect only judicial candidates nominated by the screening commission. The General Assembly is set to fill 23 judicial seats in a joint session scheduled for Wednesday.
The Judicial Department, headed by Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald Beatty, wants an additional $6.3 million for salary hikes for judges as part of a proposed $31.6 million budget increase for next fiscal year, $20 million of which would be for “case management modernization,” according to its budget proposal.
“Judges and justices’ salaries are disproportionately low when compared to salaries of persons of comparable experience and responsibility in the legal profession,” the proposal states. “As head of the third branch of government with full responsibility of the State’s judiciary, the Chief Justice’s salary is $156,234, well below the average of $180,000 paid to several high-level executives within State Government.”
Under the Senate bill, Beatty’s pay would be the same as the salary of a U.S. District Court judge, which for this year, according to U.S. Court administration, is $208,000. That means Beatty would receive a nearly $52,000, or 33.1 percent, raise.
Other higher-level judges would receive pay hikes of 32.8 percent, based on formulas in the bill and the $208,000 annual salary for federal District Court judges. Here’s a salary breakdown, with the number of affected judges in parentheses:
- Supreme Court associate justices (4): Current salary – $148,794. Proposed salary – $197,600;
- Court of Appeals chief judge: Current salary – $147,306. Proposed salary – $195,624;
- Court of Appeals associate judges (8): Current salary – $145,074. Proposed salary – $192,660;
- Circuit Court judges (49): Current salary – $141,354. Proposed salary – $187,720;
- Family Court judges (60): Current salary – $137,634. Proposed salary – $182,780.
In its budget proposal, the Judicial Department contends that giving a 20 percent raise to judges would provide a “greater benefit to the citizens of South Carolina by having more experienced lawyers seek judicial positions.” Following is a comparison of current and proposed salaries under that plan:
- Supreme Court chief justice: Current salary – $156,234. Proposed salary – $187,480;
- Supreme Court associate justices (4): Current salary – $148,794. Proposed salary – $178,552;
- Court of Appeals chief judge: Current salary – $147,306. Proposed salary – $176,767;
- Court of Appeals associate judges (8): Current salary – $145,074. Proposed salary – $174,088;
- Circuit Court judges (49): Current salary – $141,354. Proposed salary – $169,624;
- Family Court judges (60): Current salary – $137,634. Proposed salary – $165,160.
As a comparison, the annual average wage for all occupations in South Carolina is $41,530; for the nation, that figure is $49,630, according to May 2016 wage estimates by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Brundrett is the news editor of The Nerve. Contact him at 803-254-4411 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @RickBrundrett. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter.