February 7, 2023

The Nerve

Where Government Gets Exposed

S.C. judges could get more raises under Senate bill

By RICK BRUNDRETT

A state senator-lawyer wants the six-figure salaries of S.C. judges to be based on what a federal district judge makes – which typically would guarantee them annual raises.

And that could be in addition to any yearly pay hikes authorized in the state budget. State employees, including judges, received a base 3% increase for this fiscal year.

In a bill prefiled on Nov. 30, Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington, who is an attorney, proposed changing state law to require that the annual salary of the S.C. Supreme Court chief justice be the same as what a U.S. District Court judge earns.

The annual pay of Supreme Court associate justices would equal 95% of the chief justice’s salary, while the salaries of Court of Appeals, circuit and family court judges would be determined on sliding percentages of what associate justices make, under the bill.

U.S. District Court judges earn $223,400 annually. S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald Beatty, who heads the state Judicial Department, makes slightly more than that at $223,987, which includes the 3% raise given to state employees, according to department salary lists provided this year to The Nerve.

The annual salaries of the other judges, as of August, are as follows, with the current active number of full-time judges by category in parentheses, according to court records:

*Supreme Court associate justices (4):  $213,321;

*Court of Appeals chief judge (1):  $211,187;

*Court of Appeals associate judges (7):  $207,987;

*Circuit court judges (48):  $202,654; and

*Family court judges (57):  $197,321

The Nerve in December 2018 revealed that Beatty was seeking a 33% pay hike – which would have brought his salary up to the then-$208,000 pay of a U.S. District Court judge – for himself and other appellate and lower-court judges. Lawmakers and Gov. Henry McMaster approved the raises the following year.

But state law wasn’t changed then to require that the chief justice make the same as a federal district judge. Malloy’s bill would specifically do that.

Federal court records show that U.S. District Court judges have received pay hikes every year since 2013, with increases collectively totaling more than 28% during the period.

The Nerve over the past year has focused on the state Judicial Department’s lack of transparency when comes to judges’ pay and perks. The salaries, for example, of about 120 higher-paid judges, including Beatty’s, aren’t included in the online state salary database.

The department earlier this year released its then-salary list of judges and top court staff to The Nerve only after the South Carolina Policy Council – The Nerve’s parent organization – hired a law firm to press for the release of the records.

The Policy Council recently published seven recommendations to improve transparency in state government, including requiring the Judicial Department and 15 other state entities to provide salary information to the state salary database.

The Nerve last week sent written questions to Malloy about his bill, inquiring why he wants state judges’ salaries to be tied to federal district judges’ pay, whether judicial salaries should be included in the state salary database, and whether all elected judges should publicly report their annual salaries to the State Ethics Commission, as other public officials are required to do.

Malloy didn’t respond by publication of this story. His bill likely will be referred next month, when the Legislature reconvenes, to the Senate Judiciary Committee, of which he is a member.

Under federal law, federal judges get raises “whenever the pay of other federal employees increases – typically annually,” David Sellers, a U.S. Courts spokesman, said in a written response to The Nerve. Federal employees receive “locality pay” adjustments in addition to a cost-of-living increase, referred to as the “employment cost index” (ECI), though judges receive only the ECI increase, he said.

Federal judges this year received a 2.2% ECI increase, Sellers said. Raises usually take effect Jan. 1, though it often is delayed until an appropriations bill is passed and typically is made retroactive to Jan. 1, he added.

Malloy’s bill doesn’t address whether state judges would be excluded from across-the-board pay raises that other state employees receive if their salaries automatically increased because of what federal district judges earn.

This year’s 3% state pay raise for S.C. judges was effective for the first pay date on or after the start of the fiscal year on July 1, as authorized in a state budget proviso.

 And the total payroll for the state’s court system likely will continue to grow in the coming years.

More black robes

Lawmakers in June passed a compromise bill, which was signed into law by McMaster, to add four new circuit court seats (2nd, 9th, 14th, 15th circuits) and three new family court seats (1st, 7th, 16th circuits), increasing the total number of resident circuit and family court seats from 33 and 52, respectively, to 37 and 55, respectively. With existing at-large judicial seats, the total number of circuit and family court judgeships increased to 53 and 63, respectively.

In his fiscal 2023-24 budget request, Beatty asked for an additional $4.1 million in recurring general funds to cover the seven new court seats and support staff. Contacted last week by The Nerve, Erin Crawford, the chief attorney for the state Judicial Merit Selection Commission (JMSC), which screens judges for election by the Legislature, said in a written response that the JMSC’s “tentative plan” would be to screen for the seven seats next fall if lawmakers appropriated funds for those positions.

Beatty also is requesting $6 million to provide a law clerk for each of the 63 family court judges, and another $4 million in general funds to replace other revenue sources for 38 existing administrative support positions.

In addition, he is seeking $2.2 million in recurring general funds to add three Court of Appeals judges and support staff. Under state law, the Court of Appeals, which is the state’s second-highest court, has nine members.

Beatty in his budget request said the additional three judges and staff will assist in “reducing the backlog of cases” in that court, allow judges “more time to devote to hearing complicated matters,” and help filed cases to “move more efficiently through the court system.”

The Judicial Department’s total budget this fiscal year, which includes state, federal and “other” funds, is $112.6 million.

In a related matter, lawmakers will fill a Supreme Court seat with the retirement of justice Kaye Hearn, plus two existing Court of Appeals seats, as well as elect circuit and family court judges, in a joint session tentatively scheduled for Feb. 1. Supreme Court justices serve 10-year terms; the full terms of Court of Appeals, circuit and family court judges are for six years.

South Carolina and Virginia are the only states where their legislatures play a primary role in electing judges.

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.

We need your help to continue our mission of holding government officials accountable! As part of the South Carolina Policy Council, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization, we rely on donations to operate. Please consider giving today so we can keep bringing accountability to government. It’s your power, and it’s time to take it back!
The Nerve