System giving judges mid-term pay raises questioned |

System giving judges mid-term pay raises questioned

by Geoff Dornan

Nevada’s constitution clearly states that the salaries of elected officials can’t be raised or lowered during a term in office, that in order to get any legislatively approved raise, they must wait until they are re-elected.

That creates a problem for justices of the Nevada Supreme Court because, unlike most other elected officials, they serve six-year terms in office. So, if lawmakers vote to raise judicial pay the session after a justice is elected, that member of the high court would be paid less than his or her fellow justices for the next four years.

On the current court, five members were elected in either 2004 or 2006 when the pay was $140,000 a year. In the 2007 session, the salary was raised to $170,000 – the salary paid the other two justices.

But the judges and members of the Legislature found a way around the apparent inequity. While Article 6, Section 15 of the state constitution prohibits mid-term salary increases, it doesn’t say justices can’t be paid for other legally mandated duties. Using that logic, the state created the Nevada Supreme Court Commission on Law Libraries. The judges not at current pay levels are assigned to the commission and paid $30,000 a year – the difference between the 2006 and 2008 salaries – to handle those duties. The commission meets quarterly to manage the affairs of the state’s law library.

Two justices running for re-election this year, Jim Hardesty and Chief Justice Ron Parraguirre, will leave the commission in January because their salaries will rise when their new terms begin. The other current members of the commission are Michael Douglas, Nancy Saitta and Michael Cherry.

Kris Pickering and Mark Gibbons were elected in 2008 and are at the $170,000 base salary.

The other piece of the system is the compensation justices receive for their work on the Pardons Board. That system mirrors the district court longevity pay law that provides compensation increases of 2 percent for each year of service on the bench up to 22 percent. The system of longevity pay was created by the Nevada Legislature in 1989.

The Pardons Board salaries add a maximum of $37,400 to the salaries of the justices bringing total compensation for every member except Pickering to $207,400 a year. Pickering, elected two years ago and with only brief prior judicial experience, is paid the base $170,000 salary since longevity doesn’t start until after a judge’s fourth year on the bench.

The rest are all at the maximum because their lower court service transfers to the Supreme Court and all six qualify for the 22 percent.

Over the years, a number of lawmakers and others have questioned whether the system is constitutional. The issue has come up again this budget cycle after the court voted to exempt itself from the furloughs ordered for all other state employees.

Justices Hardesty and Douglas, both said they can’t discuss the constitutionality of the system because some one might choose to challenge it and that case would be decided by the Supreme Court.

But Hardesty was willing to frame the legal issue.

“The dispute would be whether the Supreme Court is being compensated for work as a Supreme Court Justice or for work on other boards and commissions,” he said. “I’m not sure the constitutional provision applies to other boards and commissions justices are required to serve on by the constitution and statute.”

Until 2007, a similar system was in place at the district court level with a library commission used to equalize salaries of the more than 60 judges in Nevada. But the 2007 Legislature began the process of changing judicial terms so that all are elected the same year and paid at the same rate. That process will conclude Nov. 2 when the remaining eight family court judges in Nevada are put on the same election schedule as the rest of the district court bench. At that point, the issue will no longer exist in district court.

Longevity pay, however, will still exist at the district court level, raising their $160,000 salaries to a maximum of $195,200 a year after 11 years on the bench.

Hardesty described the Pardons Board work, in particular, as “an enormous task.” He said justices must review upwards of 700 applications by inmates and ex-felons for the two or three meetings held each year.

But he and Douglas said those are far from the only extra duties judges have.

“The thing that surprised me (after his election) is the number of external tasks expected of justices of the Supreme Court beyond our duties of adjudicating cases,” Hardesty said. “Every justice is assigned some requirements in addition to their adjudicatory tasks.

He mentioned the foreclosure mediation program, the access to justice commission that administers funds for legal aid, lawyer trust account money and how to provide access to justice on civil matters. Douglas added the administration of specialty courts including family court and drug court programs.

Douglas said the justices have much broader duties the general public doesn’t know about.

“You see the duck on top of the water but you don’t see his feet moving below the water,” he said.

Several state officials who asked their names not be used have questioned the court’s decision exempting itself from furloughs. One also pointed out other state employees have also lost their longevity pay because of the financial crisis in which Nevada is facing a revenue shortfall approaching half the current budget.

The high court order issued two days ago says the court has already paid for the budget savings from furloughs because the Legislature deducted the money they would generate from the court’s budget for this biennium.