Ky. Chief Justice says judges, court staff in dire need of raises
Kentucky Chief Justice John Minton made an impassioned plea for lawmakers to raise salaries for judicial branch employees on Tuesday.
Speaking before the House Committee on Appropriations and Revenue, Minton said low wages have made it difficult to hire and retain qualified employees, including judges and court staff. He said without more investment the court system may be at a “tipping point.”
“If we want a better system we’ve got to maintain it and we are not maintaining it,” Minton said. “We are not feeding the system adequately to attract quality men and women to the bench and keep them there. I’m very concerned about that.”
Minton is set to retire at the end of the year after 30 years on the bench. He said Kentucky judges are among the lowest compensated in the U.S. — 51st out of 55 state and U.S. territories. They earn about $32,000 less on average, which is 25% less than the national average, he said.
But it’s not only the judges who are underpaid, according to Minton. The state’s courts have lost one-third of their staff in the last four years and are struggling to find qualified candidates to fill vacancies because of the low pay.
Compared to other branches of state government, judicial employees earn about 15% to 20% less, Minton said.
“We’re seeing turnover at about 40% annually for urban areas and critical frontline positions, such as pretrial services specialists,” he said.
To make salaries competitive, Minton is asking the legislature for $10,000 raises for full-time court employees and $5,000 for part-time employees.
Republican Rep. Jason Nemes of Louisville, an attorney who serves on the budget committee, said he’s received hundreds of emails from judges and court employees asking for pay increases.
“I’m worried. I’m very worried,” Nemes said. “My fear is that our judiciary is going to be diminished to the extent that it is ineffective in supporting and protecting our rights.”
During the hearing, Republican Rep. Randy Bridges of Paducah expressed skepticism about Minton’s salary comparisons.
“The doom and gloom I hear that concerns me is when we start comparing our pay scale to other states,” Bridges said. “Have you taken into consideration our cost of living being so much lower?”
Minton also said low pay for judges can breed discontent and expose the state to corruption.
Republican Rep. Lynn Bechler of Marion asked Minton if he was inferring Kentucky is in trouble because the state doesn’t have quality candidates running for judgeships.
“If that’s the case now and you’ve been espousing this for 14 years, are you saying that for the last 14 years we haven’t been getting quality judges and officials?” Bechler asked.
Minton said fortunately, it’s not true everywhere, but “it’s true in some places.”
Lawmakers will consider the proposal as part of the new state budget writing process in the coming weeks.
Correction: Justice Minton said Kentucky judges earn around $32,000 less than others. This figure was incorrect in a previous version.