- Eric Dexheimer American-Statesman Staff
Two bills being considered by state lawmakers have the potential to boost by 60 percent a controversial salary supplement offered to constitutional county judges — the biggest pay rate jump being proposed for any of the state’s judges.
An American-Statesman investigation in 2016 found that some county judges exploited a little-known law that allows them to enhance their salaries by more than $25,000 with virtually no oversight. If both of the pending bills pass, that would rise to $40,000.
Despite the title, constitutional judges are the top administrative officers in Texas counties, elected to oversee budgets and preside over county commissioners courts. They are often compared to city mayors. The state constitution also empowers them to perform many courtroom functions, and their work hearing cases can be essential, especially in smaller or isolated counties lacking jurists with law school training.
Two decades ago, state lawmakers voted to pay county judges who spend at least 40 percent of their time managing court cases extra money on top of their regular salaries. Over that time, the supplement has climbed from $5,000 to the current $25,200 annually.
The judges are not required to prove they spend the statutorily required time performing the bench work. The only paperwork is a single-page affidavit submitted to the comptroller’s office at the beginning of the year, in which the judge promises to meet the 40 percent threshold. No agency audits time sheets or caseloads.
86% of judges collect
The newspaper’s analysis showed that 219 of the state’s 254 county judges — 86 percent — claimed the money in 2016. (The number has since dropped to 218.) Records from the state Office of Court Administration indicated some spent very little time managing court cases.
In Caldwell County, where Judge Ken Schawe initially said he wouldn’t take the supplement but then changed his mind, local officials said his help wasn’t necessary. In Austin County, the local auditor refused to turn over the extra money to Judge Tim Lapham, contending he didn’t do the work. Ellis County Judge Carol Bush returned her supplement after an outcry.
Jim Allison, general counsel for the County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas, said the majority of the judges more than earn their extra money by managing large caseloads. He said that data from the Office of Court Administration omits magistrate duties and inquests and thus undercounts the time many put into their court work.
Compared with other judges, he said, they are underpaid. Although their salaries are covered by counties, “the state should adequately compensate them for their judicial duties, a state responsibility,” he said.
Allison also noted that other court officials are eligible to receive various types of supplemental pay. None has a comparable performance benchmark written into the deal.
Even with the extra pay, having constitutional judges hear court cases can save taxpayers money. Hiring a new county court-at-law judge to handle the same cases would cost nearly $140,000 in salary alone.
Yet at-law judges in several jurisdictions told the Statesman that some constitutional judges had insisted on performing court work for the extra pay even though there was no need for their assistance.
The new proposals would boost pay for constitutional judges two different ways.
House Bill 3971, sponsored by Rep. Mike Schofield, R-Katy, sets new salary levels for state judges generally (a companion Senate bill is being carried by Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola). Drawing on a formula used by the state’s Judicial Compensation Commission, which studies and recommends salary levels, the bill averages judicial pay in other states, federal judicial pay and private attorney salaries.
David Slayton, administrative director for the Office of Court Administration, said that Texas judges are underpaid by those measures. Although the state’s judges received a 12.5 percent raise in 2013, he noted that before that they hadn’t seen an increase since 2005. According to the new bill, the judicial raises would be implemented over several years.
The constitutional judge supplement pay is currently calculated by multiplying a district judge’s state salary by 18 percent. Schofield’s bill would raise the annual state pay for state district judges by 2022 to $160,842 from the current $140,000. If it passes, the constitutional judge supplement would climb to just under $29,000, about a $4,000 increase.
Yet a second bill, HB 1167, sponsored by Alfonso Nevárez, D-Eagle Pass, would also raise the figure used to calculate the supplement to 25 percent. If it also passes, the extra pay would eventually grow to $40,210 — a 60 percent raise from the current level.
In an interview, Nevárez said he filed the bill primarily because of the busy dockets he observed judges in his rural border region juggling.
“They’ve got a lot on their plates,” he said. “A lot of judges, particularly in smaller counties, handle a pretty heavy docket.”
Still, Allison predicted that, with state money tight, the measure was unlikely to pass. Nevárez added that he does not plan to push very hard on the measure.
“I’m not going to draw a line in the sand on it,” he said.