Leader Blues

Friday, October 17, 2008

EDITORIAL >>Justices are paid enough

Benton County Daily Record — If you remember former NBA star Latrell Sprewell, you might recall the way he scoffed at a three-year, $21 million contract extension offered to him by the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2004.

“I have a family to feed,” Sprewell said at the time.

We were reminded of Sprewell’s comment after hearing Donald Corbin, who earns $139,821 per year as an Arkansas Supreme Court associate justice, call his job “an expensive hobby” during a meeting last month of a committee set up to study judicial salaries. Corbin also mentioned that he needed his inheritance to pay for his children’s education; evidently, that $139,821 per year doesn’t cut it.

Later, Corbin told an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reporter that he misspoke. He said that he meant to refer to his time in the Legislature as an “expensive hobby.” He added that he probably should have kept his mouth shut on the matter.

He’s right about that. When you’re earning nearly five times the average per capita income in your state, you can’t expect many people to sympathize with your financial plight.

But enough about Corbin and his hobbies. The real issue at hand is that of judicial salaries. Arkansas is trying to determine whether a pay increase for Supreme Court, appeals court and circuit court judges is necessary. Appeals court judges make $135,515, and circuit court judges earn $131,206.

While those salaries might sound great, some lawyers can make a lot more working for a big-city law firm. We do stress “some.”
This issue goes beyond Arkansas. U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts last year declared judicial pay a “constitutional crisis.” That might be overstating things a bit, but Roberts’ point was that Americans are not served well when the judiciary consists only of lawyers who are so rich that they are indifferent to the salary the job offers or of lawyers for whom the salary represents a significant pay increase. Ideally, the judge’s salary would be high enough to attract the most qualified people.

When compared to judicial salaries elsewhere, the pay rate for judges in Arkansas is fairly reasonable. Texas, for example, has eight times the population of Arkansas, but its Supreme Court justices make only 8 percent more than ours. Ohio, which has nearly four times our population, pays its Supreme Court justices only 1.2 percent more.

If legislators make these kinds of comparisons, they’re unlikely to be moved by the plea for higher salaries, especially during economic times such as these.

While there might be compelling reasons to boost judicial salaries, there is no hard evidence that doing so would improve our judicial system. Until there is a groundswell of support to boost judges’ pay, not just in Arkansas but across the nation, our guess is that legislators will embrace the status quo on this issue.

There are too many other people who simply need a job — or a “hobby.”