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House approves $5.3 million in raises for Alabama judges and district attorneys

The bill aims to make judicial compensation uniform across the state and competitive with what other states are paying.

A view of the Alabama Statehouse on South Union Street in Montgomery, Alabama. (STOCK PHOTO)

Thursday, the Alabama House of Representatives passed a new pay scale for judges. The bill was amended on the floor of the House to also include raises for district attorneys and the Alabama Attorney General.

Senate Bill 292 was sponsored by Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Atmore, and carried on the floor of the Alabama House by state Rep. Prince Chestnut, D-Selma.

Rep. Chestnut, who is an attorney, explained that the new judicial pay scale was based on recommendations by the Judicial Compensation Commission, which met for about two years in order to determine how to make Alabama’s judicial compensation uniform across the state and competitive with what other states are paying.

Chestnut said that the amendment adds the district attorneys and the Attorney General to this.

Rep. Phillip Pettus, R-Killeen, said that the fiscal note is $5.3 million.

Chestnut explained that new judges will get a pay increase. Many old judges will be frozen until they get to their next step increase. “No judges will be getting a pay cut.”

Pettus said that the average judge will get a $22,000 pay raise and “Some are going to get a lot more than that. $5.3 million divided by 263 judges is $22,000.”

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“What we are doing is leveling things off,” Chestnut explained. “This eliminates county stipends, where county commissions paid their judges extra.”

Pettus complained that, “The state will be making up the difference

“Under the state Constitution, you may not lower the pay of an elected official during his term,” Chestnut explained. “The state is making up the difference because you cannot lower his salary. He cannot take a pay decrease.”

“Ways and means would not pass it if it was deleterious to the state budget,” Chestnut said in response to Pettus’s concerns. “Are you ok with Alabama judges being the most underpaid judges in the southeast?”

Pettus asked, “Why are we giving them a 20 percent pay raise and a 2 percent pay raise to teachers? I would all be for giving them the same two percent pay raise as teachers.”

“I don’t think anybody who went to a half decent law school said that it was a fun time,” Chestnut said. “Judges are compensated for their education, that is the American dream.”

Chestnut explained that on this scale a new district judge would be paid $139,000 a year. A new circuit judge would make $1,000 more than that. The chief justice would start at $176,000. A new associate justice would make $175,000, and a new appellate court judge would start at $174,000 a year. Once a judge is re-elected he or she would receive a 7.5 percent step raise. When re-elected for a third term, they would get a second 7.5 percent step raise. That would continue for each term in office.

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According to the bill, “A district judge that is later appointed or elected as a circuit judge shall receive as an initial salary the base salary of a circuit judge plus the appropriate amount for bench experience as a circuit or district judge.”

A chief justice, associate supreme court justice, or appellate court judge with lower court experience will receive additional compensation. The presiding judge of either appellate court will receive an additional $500 a year.

From the bill, “The district attorneys for each judicial circuit in the state serving on October 1, 2021, until the end of his or her service, shall be paid by the state an annual salary of an amount equal to $1,000.00 one thousand dollars ($1,000) less than the salary paid by the state to the highest paid circuit judges judge of the state, payable as the salaries of other state officers are paid. District attorneys holding office on October 1, 2021.”

A newly appointed district attorney will be paid $140,000 and receive a 7.5 percent step raise for every term he or she is re-elected to. The attorney general will be paid equally to an associate supreme court justice.

Rep. Jim Hill, R-Springville, is the Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and a retired judge.

“We have people who are tied to the pay of other individuals,” Hill said of the court system. “They all work on the same platform and that platform is the court system. It is important that we put a schedule in place so we understand how people get paid.”

“I support you and would ask everyone to support the bill,” Hill said to Chestnut.

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Rep. Napoleon Bracy, D-Prichard, said, “This bill does not hurt the general fund.”

“We are 52 out of 55 court systems in the country,” Bracy said. “We are dead last in what we pay our district and circuit judges.”

Currently, some judges and district attorneys’ pay are tied to what other jurists make.

Chestnut said, “I have heard of situations where the oldest serving circuit judge gets a phone call where he is asked don’t retire because it might affect what I make next year.”

Chestnut explained that the bill, “Supersedes local laws providing salary supplements to end the disparity between pay for doing the same work.”

Rep. Mary Moore, D-Birmingham, said, “If we can do something to raise up the pay so that we are competitive with the pay in other states I support that. We need to do the same thing for teachers and other employees. Alabama is dead last in everything because we have people who believe they don’t have to pay taxes.”

Rep. Thomas Jackson, D-Thomasville, “Would you be bringing this bill if you were not an attorney?”

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“This is going to cost $5.3 million,” Jackson said. “You would not have a lawyer without a teacher. You want to give a teacher a 2 percent step increase, but then you want to give a judge a 7.5 increase step increase.”

“The lowest circuit makes $126,000 right now,” Chestnut said. “We are 52 out of 55 and that includes Guam and Puerto Rico.”

“Arkansas pays their general jurisdiction judges (circuit and district) $174,800,” Chestnut said.

Rep. John Rogers, D-Birmingham, said, “A judge told me if a legislator who is a lawyer, who votes against the judge pay raise, might as well stop being a lawyer.”

“How much do the Black judges make?” Rogers asked.

Chestnut said, “All of the Black judges are general jurisdiction judges. They are in the metropolitan areas and the Blackbelt.”

Rogers said, “You are carrying this because you want to be a judge.”

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“I have been a judge for 11 years, I do not necessarily want to be a judge again,” Chestnut said. “I would have to talk to my wife before accepting. Honestly, the private market is pretty good.”

Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, said to Chestnut, “You are very good at what you do. I won’t ask how much money you make, but I am sure that it is more than what we are talking about here. To suggest that you are carrying this bill because you want to be a judge, that is patently absurd. That somebody would come to the mic and insult you like that insults me.”

England said that people are objecting to paying judges, “But then when they get in some kind of trouble they eagerly pay $250 an hour for help. The judge that decides the case should not make considerably less than the attorneys presenting the case.”

SB292 passed 95 to 4.

Since the bill was substituted by the House, it goes back to the Senate to consider House changes.

Tuesday will be day 28 of the 2021 Legislative Session. The 1901 Constitution limits the Legislature to a maximum of 30 days in a regular session.

Brandon Moseley is a former reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter.

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