Judges ask for more pay, bigger pensions

SALEM — A contingent of Oregon's roughly 200 state judges visited the state Capitol this week on what has become a familiar quest: more pay and, indirectly, bigger pensions.

Since 2014, lawmakers have given elected state judges raises of between 17.4 percent and 18.6 percent, depending on the court they work in.

The Legislature has given judges three separate raises of $5,000 a year. And, in 2015, lawmakers also agreed to automatically give all judges the same annual cost-of-living raises that non-union state managers get into the future, usually 2 to 3 percent a year.

Today, a Supreme Court judge makes $147,560 a year, an appeals court judge $144,536, and a circuit court judge $135,776.

This year, judges want lawmakers to pass a bill that would lock in another three years of raises between 2018 and 2020, increasing their pay by a further 12.7 percent to 14.2 percent. Those raises would cost the state around $11.2 million during the next four years.

Judges say the pay boosts are needed to attract quality young attorneys to serve on the bench.

But the raises would especially benefit the ranks of older judges who are just a few years away from retirement and from collecting Oregon Public Employee Retirement System pensions. The end-of-career pay boosts would sharply increase these judges' annual PERS payouts, calculations by The Register-Guard show.

Oregon's judicial salaries remain low compared to other states — they rank around 40th nationally in aggregate, according to 2017 data from the National Center for State Courts.

Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Balmer told lawmakers this week that the new raises would bring Oregon in line with what other western states pay.

He acknowledged that the request is "a heavy lift" given that the state faces a $1.8 billion gap between expenses and revenues in its upcoming 2017-19 budget.

"We're not doing this for the money," Balmer said. "But (Oregon) needs to pay (judges) appropriately for the kind of work that they do."

The raises, Balmer said, would help attract "some of the best young lawyers, best young deputy district attorneys, and best young defense lawyers" to Oregon's bench.

But, at least initially, the healthy pay raises would a bigger boon for older judges nearing retirement — and a hidden cost to the state. The state has not calculated the potential financial impact on PERS, which is severely underfunded.

The pay and retirement boosts would not apply to the array of other Oregon government judges, such as municipal court judges or administrative law judges.


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