Judges to get three $5,800 pay raises in years ahead under pending legislation

Tennessee judges will get no pay raise next year, but will see their annual salaries boosted by $5,800 in 2016, 2018 and 2020 under legislation pending in the waning days of the 2014 session.

Sponsors of the legislation say the pay hikes need to be put in place now because the state constitution prohibits any change in judicial salaries during their term in office. All judges serve eight-year terms and those terms expire Sept. 1, 2014, at which point new eight-year terms begin.

“If we don’t do it now, there’s no adjustment at all, at least for the next eight years,” Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, said in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.

The only committee member to vote against the judicial pay raises was Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville. He began his commentary by asking Bill Young, director of the Administrative Office of the Courts, the current salary of “these poor saps, living hand to mouth.”

Young said the base salary of state trial court judges – those presiding in Circuit Court, Chancery Court or Criminal Court – is $165,000 per year and they also get the same health insurance and other benefits as other state employees.

Campfield said he could not support pay raises for judges, even in the future, at a time “when we’re telling teachers that we can’t afford to give them pay raises and they don’t make a fraction of $168,000, and we’re telling state employees – a lot of them probably don’t make $20,000 to $30,000 – that we can’t afford to give them pay raises.”

Norris is sponsor of SB2598, which covers judges whose salaries are paid by the state. Sen. Ken Yager, R-Harriman, is sponsor of SB1747, which covers General Sessions Court judges, whose salaries are paid by the local government in the county where they preside.

General Sessions judge salaries, Young said, depend on the population of the county – ranging from a high of $165,000 in Knox, Davidson, Shelby and Hamilton counties to a low of $66,000 in the state’s smallest rural counties. The bill would give them the same $5,800 pay raise in three different years as proposed for state-level judges.

Both bills are now awaiting votes in the House and Senate Finance Committees.

Under current law, state judges have been receiving an annual cost-of-living raise every year based on the Consumer Price Index. Under the bills, as explained by Norris in Judiciary Committee, that will be suspended on Aug. 31 and replaced with the three $5,800 raises in 2016, 2018 and 2020.