Double-Dipping Perks Given to Senior S.C. Judges

February 5, 2014

Investigative Reports

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Double Dip AheadS.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal on Tuesday said she started receiving retirement payments, which she noted stands at about $131,000 annually, on June 3, 2010.

Contacted Tuesday by The Nerve, Justice Costa Pleicones estimated he has been getting retirement income, which was $125,306 in 2012, according to a financial-disclosure statement he released earlier to The Nerve, since July 2007.

The two longtime jurists, who are expected to square off at noon today in an election in the General Assembly for the chief justice seat, are among an elite group of judges – 17 for the last quarter of 2013 – who are drawing their judicial salaries and retirement income at the same time, according to information provided Tuesday to The Nerve by the S.C. Public Employee Benefit Authority (PEBA).

Solicitors and circuit public defenders belong to same state retirement system, called the “Judges and Solicitors Retirement System. (JSRS)” There is one “working retired” solicitor and no “working retired” public defenders, PEBA spokeswoman Megan Lightle said in a written response to The Nerve.

The other three justices on the Supreme Court – Donald Beatty, Kaye Hearn and John Kittredge – each told The Nerve on Tuesday they receive no state retirement benefits.

“I’m not 60; I’ve never even thought about double dipping,” said Kittredge, 57.

The retirement system for judges and solicitors is the smallest of the state’s five retirement systems, serving 201 retirees and their beneficiaries as of July 1, 2013, compared to, for example, 127,777 retirees and their beneficiaries in the general employee retirement system, which includes public school teachers, according to PEBA’s fiscal 2013 financial report.

But the judges’ retirement system has the highest average annual benefit – $79,560 as of July 1, 2013 – among all of the systems, the PEBA report shows. As a comparison, the current average annual retirement benefit for general employees and police officers is $19,497 and $19,401, respectively.

Toal, who has been chief justice since 2000 and a member of the high court since 1988, earns an annual judicial salary of $148,350, according to a state salary database maintained by The State newspaper. Toal’s yearly retirement income of about $131,000 represents 88 percent of her judicial salary.

Pleicones’ annual retirement income of $125,306 as of 2012 represents about the same percentage of his $141,286 yearly judicial salary.

State lawmakers, who are served by their own retirement system, also receive proportionately higher retirement benefits compared to other state retirees. As of July 1, 2013, the average annual retirement benefit for lawmakers was $18,560, which represented more than 83 percent of the average annual $22,267 salary for legislators, according to PEBA’s year-end report.

The Nerve has previously reported on the generous retirement benefits for lawmakers.

Under state law, judges, solicitors and circuit public defenders can “retire in place” and receive up to 90 percent of their “current active” salary if they are at least 60 years old and have completed at least 25 years of “credited service.”

They can continue to draw both their salaries and retirement payments “until the end of the calendar year in which the member attains the age of seventy-two years,” according to the law (Section 9-8-60(7)(a) of the S.C. Code of Laws).

Asked for an interpretation of that law, Lightle said while PEBA “does not control employment decisions,” the agency has understood that provision as “requiring a judge to terminate from his or her position by the end of the calendar year in which he or she turns 72, as part of his or her retirement.”

The Nerve on Tuesday asked Toal and Pleicones if they plan on retiring from the Supreme Court when they turn 72.

“I firmly believe that is what the law requires, notwithstanding interpretations that may have been placed on the law,” said Pleicones, 69, who was elected to the Supreme Court in 2000 after serving nearly nine years as a circuit court judge.

“No if ands or buts about it, if I am reelected tomorrow, I will retire on Dec. 31, 2015, in compliance with the Judicial and Solicitors Retirement Act which requires retirement at the end of the year following the judge’s 72nd birthday,” Toal, 70, said in a written response. “This is the same answer I gave under oath to the Judicial Merit Selection Commission.”

At The Nerve’s request, Toal and Pleicones within the past two weeks voluntarily released normally confidential financial information they presented to the Judicial Merit Selection Commission, which nominates candidates for election in the General Assembly. To see their records, click here.

The Nerve initially reported last month that judicial financial-disclosure forms are largely kept hidden from public review, and that information about a judge’s private sources of income and investments typically is limited. Not knowing the sources of income and investments for judges and their spouses prevents the public from monitoring potential conflicts of interest.

The amount of state retirement benefits for Toal and Pleicones was not listed on their most recent financial-disclosure forms they submitted to the state Office of Court Administration, though Pleicones noted that he receives retirement income.

Both Toal and Pleicones previously told The Nerve that they would support efforts to require the public disclosure of judges’ private sources of income and investments. The Nerve on Tuesday got varying responses from the other three justices when asked the same question.

“It certainly wouldn’t bother me to have full disclosure,” said Hearn, who joined the high court in 2009 after serving 15 years on the S.C. Court of Appeals – the state’s second-highest court, including 10 years as its chief judge.

Kittredge, who joined the Supreme Court in 2008 after serving five years on the Court of Appeals, said he has “complied with the law fully” and provided “everything to the Judicial Merit Selection Commission.” As for requiring judges to publicly disclose more financial information, he replied, “Whether they should or not, I haven’t given it a lot of thought.”

Beatty, who was elected to the high court in 2007 after serving four years on the Court of Appeals, wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about following the example of Toal and Pleicones in releasing more detailed financial information, noting, “I don’t see the need to at this point in time.”

Asked if he generally supported more transparency in judicial income disclosure, Beatty replied, “I’ll disclose whatever is required of me to disclose, but other than that, I have no interest in the subject.”

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_rick. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.

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