How a modest proposal turned into a big pay raise for county judges


Highlights

State lawmakers boosted supplemental pay for county judges 66 percent in 2015, to $25,200.

In 2017, the annual supplement that county judges can collect for courtroom work could rise to $27,770.

Extra pay for county judges who report they spend at least 40 percent of their time on court work has been available since 1997, when legislators created a $5,000 bonus by tacking a late amendment onto a bill raising state judicial salaries. Two years later, it was bumped to $10,000; and, in 2005, increased again, to $15,000.

Last year, state lawmakers approved a 66 percent raise. This time, they also made sure the judges could get future increases without the Legislature having to directly vote on them.

The latest raise initially wasn’t intended to cover all judges. In 2013, John F. Gonzales Jr., then the Willacy County judge, petitioned his state senator, Eddie Lucio, Jr., to sponsor a bill to study increasing the supplement for judges in small counties without a county court-at-law.

Gonzales, who has since left office, said the measure was aimed at rural administrators like him — nonlawyers who, because of the lack of at-law courts, were often the only legal game in town. “After being in that position, and not being an attorney, I found it was a ton of work running a court,” he said.

The study was undertaken by the state’s Office of Court Administration. Although it began with the bill’s directive to examine only small counties without at-law courts, it was eventually expanded to include all counties after the agency concluded there was nothing in the law that allowed adjusting the pay rate for some counties and not others, Administrator David Slayton said.

Published in November 2014, the study, based on a count of the new cases reported in each county’s constitutional court, showed the judges’ cumulative courtroom work had inched up 0.2 percent over the past year. In a survey, 84 percent of judges said they were underpaid for their court work, particularly when compared with district and statutory county judges, who perform similar work.

Not all the respondents agreed a big raise was in order. “I knew what the job paid when I ran for it,” one wrote. “I think it should be based on the number of cases handled,” added another.

With little discussion, lawmakers in 2015 approved the latest raise for any judge who submitted the affidavit swearing he or she spent 40 percent of the job on court work. Instead of specifying an amount, this time legislators voted to set the rate at 18 percent of a state district court judge’s salary.

State district judges earn $140,000. That immediately pushed the new supplemental payment for constitutional county judges to $25,200, an increase of more than $10,000. Any time the district judges get a future raise, county judges automatically will, too.

Two weeks ago, the Office of Court Administration’s Judicial Compensation Committee recommended district judges get a new 10.2 percent boost. If approved, the annual county judge supplement would climb again, to $27,770.

The money for the supplement comes from local fees charged in the judges’ courts: $15 per civil conviction and $40 per civil filing. Last year, the fees raised from constitutional courts came to $1.4 million — about a quarter of the $5.5 million annual cost of payments to the 219 judges who are receiving it this year.



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