State's judges 'underpaid,' may deter lawyers from entering profession

By Dawn Geske | Aug 4, 2016

JACKSONVILLE – Recent scrutiny has been placed on judges’ salaries in Florida as some of the lowest in the country.

JACKSONVILLE – Recent scrutiny has been placed on judges’ salaries in Florida as some of the lowest in the country.

Competitive salaries of judges were much of the talk at the recent annual judge reception held by The Jacksonville Bar Association. While honoring local judiciary, the focus moved to keeping qualified persons on the bench and in doing so, wages must be commensurate.

In a survey done by the National Center for State Courts, salaries of judges in high courts to general jurisdiction courts were analyzed, ranking the 51 states based on the average salary of judges for each.

Florida came in at 32 for judge salaries in the high court at $162,200 and at 23 for general court judges at $138,036. While not the worst, it is disproportionate toward states such as California and Illinois that have some of the highest salaries in the nation for judges.

“Florida judges are underpaid compared to people with comparable experience working in private firms,” Craig Waters, public information officer for the Florida Supreme Court told the Florida Record. “In addition, many local government attorney positions pay salaries above a judge’s wages. This is a trend noticeable nationwide. The legislature has been unable to raise salaries much since the recession of 2008. In 2009, Florida judicial salaries actually were reduced by 2 percent, a loss that was reversed in 2013.”

The low salaries in the judicial field have been to blame for the attorneys not wanting to enter the profession, suggesting that it should be more in line with what a private practice attorney makes.

"The lower salaries may deter top lawyers from becoming judges in two ways,” said Waters. “First, they discourage qualified women and men from stepping forward for public service. Most would take a deep cut in pay if they were appointed by the governor or ran for election to a judgeship. Second, they lead some sitting judges to leave and reenter private practice as they face normal life events such as educating their children. We can lose significant talent because of our lower pay scales.”

Changes in judicial salaries could come soon as yearly analysis does occur by the Supreme Court and it has been slated as a top priority for the legislative budget.

“As part of the fiscal year 2015-16 and 2016-17 legislative budget requests, the judicial branch sought an upward salary adjustment for judges as part of a multi-year strategy to fully restore judicial salaries to a competitive level,” said Waters. “This issue was a top priority of the judicial branch, along with seeking additional salary dollars to continue addressing recruitment, retention, and equity issues affecting court system staff. In the budget request, the judicial branch noted in part that it is imperative that the state of Florida be able to recruit and retain quality judges. It only makes sense that the quality of justice for Florida’s citizens is directly impacted by the quality of the men and women that Florida elects or appoints as judges.

“And, it also seems obvious that competitive salaries are essential to the state’s ability to attract a high number of highly qualified attorneys willing to run and apply for judicial openings – or willing to stay on the bench for a full judicial career after their election or appointment.”

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Jacksonville Bar Association National Center for State Courts

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