By a 4-0 vote the members of Arizona’s Commission on Salaries for Elective State Officers recommended that Arizona’s state supreme court justices, intermediate appellate court and county superior court judges get a $15,000 raise. I read the news item while knocking back my third cup of coffee at half past 5 Tuesday morning. Parenthetically, no surprise, the Commission included two former state bar presidents.
According to Arizona Republic Reporter Mary Jo Pitzl’s report, the proposal will cost state and Maricopa County taxpayers an estimated $1.4M. Insofar as a raise is ‘the gift that keeps on giving,’ I’m not sure what’s rolled up in that number. It strikes me on the low side. But whatever the final number, it should still be a lot less than the cost-of-living raises the state supreme court ordered restored to retired judges and elected officials last year.
As for the aforementioned commission’s pay hike recommendation and whether the jurists get it will be up to Arizona’s Governor and its Legislature.
To be clear, let me not be the one to begrudge anyone making a few more ducats for their work. In the words of lawyer and philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero, “Justice is the set and constant purpose which gives every man his due.” And demonstrating he really did think like a lawyer, Cicero also unabashedly declared, “No one can give you better advice than yourself.”
Face value acceptance.
I do, however, take issue with the all too common sloppy reporting from the local press. “The commissioners decided that after years of stagnant pay, an increase would make the judiciary an attractive option for attorneys who otherwise could make far more in private practice.” [Emphasis added] This oft-invoked bromide has seen more use than understanding and more acceptance than analysis. Do local journalists ever push back when they hear this stuff? Or do they just take what they’re told at face value?
When compared to its neighbors, the salary commission also claimed Arizona lagged behind in pay with superior court judges coming in“29th in the nation.” I don’t know where the commission got its data or why comparisons to neighboring states are even relevant. Colorado’s judicial salaries virtually match Arizona’s. And the neighboring states of Utah and New Mexico pay their judges less than Arizona. Meantime, Nevada and California pay their judges considerably more. So what?
According to the National Center for State Courts and its most recent Survey of Judicial Salaries, Arizona’s superior court jurists rank 27th. And when adjusted for the state’s lower cost-of-living, the adjusted rank is 22nd. I don’t know where Arizona ought to rank but it should at least be noted that the state is currently right at the national median judicial salary average.
“Far more in private practice.”
Per the State Bar of Arizona’s last lawyer economics survey, the median salary for all attorneys in the state is $100,000. The median for solo attorneys was $75,000. Along with small firm attorneys, solo practitioners are the greatest percentage of all Arizona attorneys. This is true across the country where by some estimates, nearly 2 out of 5 practicing lawyers are solos.
But an even more reliable data source comes courtesy of the IRS. Since the 1960s, the IRS has collected and published income levels for all American lawyers filing as solo practitioners. According to a CNN story, “In 1988, solo practitioners earned an inflation-adjusted $70,747. By 2012, earnings had fallen to $49,130, a 30% decrease in real income. And note, $49,130 is not the starting salary for these lawyers. It is the average earnings of all 354,000 lawyers who filed as solo practitioners that year.”
According to Professor Benjamin Bratton’s Glass Half Full: The Decline and Rebirth of the Legal Profession, “The hits keep coming for the American legal profession. Law schools are churning out too many graduates, depressing wages, and constricting the hiring market.” Writing at “The collapsing economics of solo legal practice,” law professor Paul Campos suggests even worse data numbers, “The median solo practitioner is making less than $35,000 per year.”
So notwithstanding what one solo lawyer told me awhile ago about not having any interest in applying for a county judicial vacancy because “it would be a cut in pay,” there are a lot more lawyers, especially these days, who would consider the current judicial pay scale coupled with better-than-average pension benefits and good medical, dental and vision coverage an excellent gig. Not to mention the extraordinary job security. In more than 50 years of merit selection and judicial retention elections, only 3 judges have ever failed to receive the simple majority needed to keep their seats. It’s tantamount to lifetime tenure. And with a possible $15,000 raise in the offing — even better. Any wonder, then, that there’s never a lack of applicants — including by the way that one lawyer who said it’d be “a cut in pay.”
Credits: Photos except the Cicero Cartoon are via Morguefile.com, no attribution required.Cicero denouncing Cataline (from The Comic History of Rome, c. 1850), Wikimedia Commons, by John Leech, public domain.