The Dallas Morning News
This Judicial Raise Is Just Too Much
State district judges are due for a pay bump but not what panel recommends
ATexas panel reviewing judicial pay is recommending that state district court judges receive a 22% raise over the next two years.
But while the reasons provided by the State Judicial Compensation Commission have some merit, that kind of bump in compensation for district court judges is excessive. A smaller increase makes better sense.
The Legislature has other pressing pay issues to weigh, such as potential raises for school teachers and increased rates for foster care providers. And locally, many district court judges in Dallas County still face huge backlogs in their dockets, an ongoing problem that raises questions about their efficiency.
The commission notes in its December 2022 report that district judge salaries haven’t kept pace with inflation, a factor that can’t be overlooked. These trial court judges hear some of our state’s most significant cases, from felony crimes to divorce and child custody disputes to complex civil litigation, and they deserve to be fairly paid. So some increase is warranted.
Also, the $140,000 annual base salary of Texas district judges is significantly less than that of other large states, according to the commission. District judges in California are paid at least $225,074, while those in New York receive $210,900 and those in Florida make $182,060, according to the report.
The commission found that Texas ranks 41st nationwide.
On top of that, Texans in 2021 passed a constitutional amendment requiring a district judge to have at least eight years of experience as a practicing attorney or judge, yet the last increase in base pay was a decade ago. In 2019, lawmakers passed a tiered pay scale for judges allowing them bonuses based on longevity. Nonetheless, the base pay should be raised to at least $162,294 to keep up with inflation, commissioners said in their report.
Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht told the House Committee on Judiciary & Civil Jurisprudence earlier this month that low pay makes it harder to get and keep qualified judges, who can make more money in private practice.
The price tag over the 2024-25 biennium would be $56.8 million, with about $37 million of that going to district judges. The remainder would be paid to appellate justices, government lawyers and others whose salaries are tied to those of district judges.
While the district judge base pay should go up, the state should also push for better assessment of court productivity and layers of accountability. Current statistics showing huge backlogs in some Dallas County district courts shouldn’t be ignored. And a recent report by an outside consultant hired by Dallas County found that many Texas counties are struggling to meet national standards in the timely disposition of felony cases.
COVID-19 caused nightmares for many institutions, and our state’s courts are no exception. But as teachers and other public servants also ask for pay raises, the hefty increase recommended by the commission for judges is too much to justify.