November 30, 2022

The Nerve

Where Government Gets Exposed

Senior judges getting double-dipping perk; records secret

By RICK BRUNDRETT

Most South Carolina workers probably don’t receive big retirement checks from their employers at the same time they’re getting their regular pay.

But under state law, eligible senior judges can receive separate “retire-in-place” paychecks equal to 90% of their six-figure salaries.

And the law allows them – as well as other state and local public officials – to keep their public retirement income secret.

The Nerve this year has been highlighting the S.C. Judicial Department’s lack of transparency about judicial pay and other benefits. Last month, The Nerve revealed that more than 70 state Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, circuit and family court judges in 2021 traveled to pricey resorts for conferences hosted by special-interest legal organizations that picked up part or all of the costs, though the trip records aren’t posted on the department’s website.

The legislatively controlled Judicial Merit Selection Commission, which by law can review judges’ financial records in secret, is scheduled to hold screening hearings this week for the next round of judicial elections to be held early next year, including a Supreme Court seat. South Carolina and Virginia are the only states where their legislatures play primary roles in electing judges.

S.C. Public Employee Benefit Authority (PEBA) records show that as of July 1, 2021, there were 16 “retire-in-place” members in the Judges and Solicitors Retirement System, which covers judges elected by the Legislature, as well as circuit solicitors and public defenders, and executive-branch judges on the Administrative Law Court. The identities of the 16 recipients weren’t disclosed in PEBA’s most-recent “actuarial valuation” report.

In a recent written response to The Nerve, PEBA spokeswoman Angie Warren declined to identify the amount of retire-in-place benefits for the 16 recipients, citing “confidentiality concerns that are implicated when such small numbers are involved.” 

In a 2018 Nerve story, state Supreme Court associate justices John Kittredge and Kaye Hearn confirmed they were receiving the special retirement pay. Kittredge said then he was receiving about $11,000 per month in gross retirement benefits, which worked out to be $132,000 annually, though he pointed out he netted less than $6,000 monthly after taxes. Hearn, who by law must retire from the state’s top court by the end of this year, declined at the time to say what she was receiving.

In 2014, then-Chief Justice Jean Toal and then-Associate Justice Costa Pleicones, who later became chief justice, told The Nerve they were receiving about $131,000 and $125,306, respectively, in retire-in-place benefits.

The Nerve last month in writing asked all current five members of the Supreme Court, including Chief Justice Donald Beatty, Kittredge and Hearn; as well as eight members of the Court of Appeals – the state’s second-highest court – including Chief Judge Bruce Williams, if they are receiving the retirement benefit and if so, the yearly or monthly amount.

The only Supreme Court justice to respond was John Few, who said in an email response that he was not receiving the retirement benefit. Court of Appeals judges D. Garrison Hill, Stephanie McDonald and Paula Thomas in written responses said they were not getting the benefit.

The Nerve in October reported that Beatty’s current annual salary is $223,987; if he receives the retire-in-place benefit on top of that, he could get as much as $201,588 in additional yearly gross pay. The other four justices’ yearly salaries are $213,321.

As the Court of Appeals’ chief judge, Williams makes $211,187 annually, while other judges on the nine-member court earn $207,987, according to an updated salary list provided by court officials to The Nerve in August. Circuit and family court judges receive $202,654 and $197,321, respectively.

The Judicial Department earlier this year released its then-judicial and staff salary list only after the South Carolina Policy Council – The Nerve’s parent organization – hired a law firm to pressure the agency to release the records.

Among the state’s five retirement systems, the Judges and Solicitors Retirement System (JSRS) has the fewest number of retirees, though it pays the highest benefits, with an average annual benefit of $145,609 for 168 retirees – including the 16 retire-in-place members – as of July 1, 2021, PEBA records show. Paid annual benefits to 229 JSRS retirees and beneficiaries totaled $26.6 million.

In comparison, the average yearly benefit for 125,086 retirees in the South Carolina Retirement System (SCRS), the largest of the five systems, which covers general employees, was $22,486 as of July 1, 2021, PEBA records show. Total benefits paid to 148,008 retirees and beneficiaries in that system were $3.1 billion.

Special treatment

To be eligible for the 90% retire-in-place benefit, judges must have at least 32 years of “credited” service, which can include not only their years on the bench but also any allowed service credit “purchased or transferred into the system,” according to information provided by PEBA for The Nerve’s 2018 story.

Although he didn’t respond to The Nerve’s written questions last month, Chief Justice Beatty could be eligible for the benefit under state law, based on his judicial experience combined with his prior years of service in the military and as a House member in the early 1990s. The General Assembly first elected him as a circuit court judge in 1995 and elevated him to the Court of Appeals in 2003; he was elected to the Supreme Court in 2007 and as chief justice in 2016.

By law, eligible judges can’t start receiving the retirement pay along with their regular salaries until they are 60 years old, though the 90% benefit can be deposited in a special account, payable when they turn 60. Judges are required to retire in the year they turn 72.

The retire-in-place benefit was added to a retirement bill in 2007 while Toal was the chief justice, legislative records show.

In her recent written reply to The Nerve, PEBA spokeswoman Warren said eligible lawmakers who participate in the General Assembly Retirement System (GARS), as well as certain members of the SCRS and police officers (PORS) retirement systems who are elected, also can receive retire-in-place benefits.

But she noted those amounts could “vary widely from member to member, particularly when a member is retiring based upon reaching a certain age rather than the total amount of service.”

Warren referred The Nerve to PEBA’s handbooks for those retirement systems, though only the JSRS specifically allows the 90% retire-in-place benefit.

As for the number of SCRS, PORS and GARS members who receive retire-in-place benefits, Warren said PEBA does not “track that particular demographic.”

Under state law, eligible lawmakers who receive retirement pay while in office must give up their $10,400 base annual salary but can continue to receive $12,000 yearly “in-district” expense payments. The Nerve in 2010 identified as many as then-active 18 senators and a dozen House members from both parties who might have been receiving the benefit.

Retire-in-place pay is different from benefits paid to former government employees who return to public jobs after retiring, according to Warren. Generally, those workers can earn up to $10,000 annually without affecting their retirement benefits.

When it comes to transparency, elected and other government officials who must report their taxpayer-funded salaries on annual statements of economic interests (SEIs), which are filed with the State Ethics Commission and are available online, aren’t required to list the amount of any public retirement income, under state law.

And, as The Nerve has pointed out, judges who are elected by the Legislature and are part of the “unified” court system are exempted by law from filing yearly SEIs. Besides that, their annual salaries aren’t included in the online state salary database, maintained by the Department of Administration.

Brundrett is the news editor of The Nerve (www.thenerve.org). Contact him at 803-394-8273 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @RickBrundrett. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.

Nerve stories are free to reprint and repost with permission by and credit to The Nerve

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