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Hartford - Members of a state commission on judges' salaries say they're leaning in favor of recommending 5.5 percent pay raises in each of the next four fiscal years, but lawmakers say the state budget deficit could present a major obstacle to the plan.
Under the proposal being debated by the Commission on Judicial Compensation, Superior Court judges' pay would increase from about $146,800 to $181,800 over the four-year period that begins July 1. The panel was set to vote Tuesday on its final recommendation to the legislature.
The commission's plan contains lower pay raises than the ones proposed by Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers, who called in October for salary increases of 11 percent in the first year and 5.5 percent annually in the following three fiscal years. Under that scenario, Superior Court judges' pay would jump about $45,000 to nearly $191,900 over the four years.
In justifying her request, Rogers said state judges haven't had a pay raise since 2007 and a national survey showed Connecticut's pay for general trial court judges ranks 45th in the country when the state's cost of living is factored in. Without the cost of living factor, the survey by the National Center for State Courts said Connecticut has the 14th-highest salary level for general trial court judges.
The average trial court judge's salary nationwide is about $137,000, the center says.
But estimates of the state's budget deficit have skyrocketed over the past two months. In early October, state Comptroller Kevin Lembo predicted a $26.9 million deficit in this year's $20 billion budget. Earlier this month, Lembo's estimate ballooned to $415 million.
Higher Medicaid costs were among the reasons cited for the increase.
Many state legislators in both parties believe judges are overdue for a raise, but say the coming months will be a tough time for any salary increase proposal. Most other state workers are under a pay freeze.
"Any expenditure of this kind will be difficult, if not impossible, given the current fiscal situation," said Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn.
The commission has been considering seven factors, mandated by law, while discussing judges' salaries, including judges' pay in other states and the state's ability to pay judges' salaries.
"I don't think that there is ever a good time to talk about salary increases for government employees," said Michael Quinn, a Meriden lawyer and commission member. "But ... the judges have been left behind and fairness dictates that something needs to be done."
There are 201 authorized judge positions in the state court system, including seven on the state Supreme Court and nine on the Appellate Court. About two dozen Superior Court judge jobs are vacant.
Supreme Court justices would see their pay increase from $162,500 to about $201,300 under the commission's plan of 5.5 percent raises annually for four years. Rogers' pay would jump from about $175,650 to $217,600.
In an opinion letter recently published in The Hartford Courant, state Judge Trial Referee Charles D. Gill, who has been on the Superior Court Bench for 30 years, said raises for judges are overdue. He called being a trial judge "one of the toughest, grueling and unappreciated civilian jobs in American government."
"Judges need justice and fairness, too. We do our best to ensure that you also receive both, 24-7," Gill wrote.