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Featured, members of the Texas Supreme Court in 2017. Seated, from left: Justice Paul W. Green; Chief Justice Nathan L. Hecht; and Justice Phil Johnson. Standing, from left: Justice John Phillip Devine; Justice Debra H. Lehrmann; Justice Don Willett; Justice Eva Guzmán; Justice Jeffrey S. Boyd; and Justice Jeff Brown. Helping protect Texas’ justice system by keeping and attracting the best qualified individuals to serve as judges, from district courts to the Texas Supreme Court, will be considered by a special legislative panel that includes Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, and Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen.

Photograph Courtesy TEXAS SUPREME COURT

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Protecting Texas’ justice system by attracting and keeping best individuals to serve as judges to be reviewed by Rep. Canales and Sen. Hinojosa

By DAVID A. DÍAZ
Legislativemedia@aol.com

Helping protect Texas’ justice system by keeping and attracting the best qualified individuals to serve as judges, from district courts to the Texas Supreme Court, will be considered by a special legislative panel that includes Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, and Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen.

The Joint Interim Committee to Study State Judicial Salaries, whose 10 members were announced during the Fall of 2017, has been assigned by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Speaker of the House Joe Straus to study the creation of a formula that could decide the state salaries of hundreds of judges, many who are leaving the bench because they make more money in the private sector.

“As in any other profession, we want our judges to be intelligent, experienced, of high integrity, and capable, especially because of the enormous power they wield in their respective courts,” said Canales, himself an attorney. “With a person’s life, liberty, and property literally at stake before them, it is in the best interest of our society to have the best and brightest serving as our champions of justice.”

Texas is the second largest state in the nation, in both area and population, and it continues to grow in population, commerce, and industry, notes the Judicial Compensation Commission, which was created in 2007 to recommend appropriate salaries for judges of the Texas Supreme Court, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the courts of appeals, and the district courts.

“A basic requirement to ensuring that citizens and businesses can manage their affairs effectively is a stable and predictable judiciary. Therefore, to effectively and efficiently address the needs of the State of Texas and its citizens, it is essential to have and support a competent judiciary,” added the 25-page report published in 2016, and which is available for review at http://txcourts.gov/media/1436448/2016-judicial-compensation-commission-report.pdf

Hinojosa, who in 2017 was the Senate author of legislation that authorized the creation of the Joint Interim Committee to Study State Judicial Salaries, called for a long-term resolution to this issue and the development of “a plan that fairly calculates state judicial salaries and adequately reflects the significant responsibilities our judges carry out each day.”

Hinojosa, also an attorney, emphasized that the state’s judiciary is an equal branch of government in Texas, “yet our judges are underpaid for the significant responsibilities they hold. We continue to lose very experienced, responsible, and qualified judges to the private sector because of low pay.”

Joining Canales and Hinojosa on the 10-member Joint Interim Committee to Study State Judicial Salaries are Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Grandbury, Sen. Sylvia García, D-Houston, Rep. Ana Hernández, D-Houston, Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, Rep. Brooks Landgraf, R-Odessa, Rep. John Smithee, R-Amarillo, and Rep. John Wray, R-Waxahachie.

Hinojosa’s successful legislation, known as Senate Concurrent Resolution No. 57, provided additional insights into the need to increase judicial salaries in the state.

SCR 57 reads accordingly:

WHEREAS, Judicial salaries in Texas are consistently lower than those of other states with similar populations, and the state judiciary has received only two pay raises since 2000; and

WHEREAS, The Judicial Compensation Commission was created in 2007 to recommend appropriate salaries for judges of the Texas Supreme Court, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the courts of appeals, and the district courts; since its inception, the JCC has issued a report during each state legislative session; the only upgrade in compensation came after the commission’s 2012 endorsement of a 21.5 percent raise in judicial salaries; the legislature voted to increase wages by 12 percent; and

WHEREAS, The Texas judiciary plays a fundamental role in upholding the rule of law and safeguarding the rights and protections guaranteed to citizens by the state and federal constitutions, and competitive wages help to attract and retain the most qualified and capable judges for courts across the Lone Star State; now, therefore, be it

RESOLVED, That the 85th Legislature of the State of Texas hereby request the lieutenant governor and the speaker of the house of representatives to create a joint interim committee to study state judicial salaries; and, be it further

RESOLVED, That the study include the creation of a formula to calculate state judicial salaries, examining the salaries of the highest appellate courts of the nine most populous states other than Texas, the salaries of judges on the United States Courts of Appeals, and the average starting base salaries of first-year associate attorneys at the five largest law firms in Texas; and, be it further

RESOLVED, That the committee’s proceedings and operations be governed by such general rules and policies for joint interim committees as the 85th Legislature may adopt.

Also according to the Judicial Compensation Commission:

The commission held its first meeting of the biennium on September 9, 2016, and reviewed data relating to the factors to be considered in setting judicial compensation. The commission took public comment on issues related to judicial compensation on the morning of October 13, 2016. In the afternoon, the commission met again and made the recommendations included in this report.

The Commission also met on November 22, 2016 to adopt this report. The minutes of the Commission’s meetings for the biennium are available on the Commission’s webpage at:
http://www.txcourts.gov/jcc.aspx.

Based on the information it has gathered and reviewed, the Commission makes the following findings:

• In order to maintain a strong, qualified and independent judiciary, and in order to attract qualified candidates and retain experienced judges, appropriate judicial compensation is essential.

• The last judicial salary increase effective September 1, 2013, increased the salaries of the state’s judges by 12% and brought them to a level that was consistent with the pace of inflation based on the judicial salaries in effect in 1991.

• At the end of the 2016-2017 biennium, judicial salaries will again begin to lag behind the rate of inflation and be lower than salaries paid in 1991 when factoring inflation.

• While maintaining a 1991 level of compensation should be a goal so that real compensation does not decrease with inflation, the 1991 level of compensation in the 2018-2019 biennium is inadequate to recruit and retain the best judges for Texas.

• The salary of Texas’ Supreme Court justices and Court of Criminal Appeals judges ranks 25th in the nation when compared with the salary of other high court judges; the salary of Texas’ Courts of Appeals justices ranks 23rd in the nation when compared with the salary of other appellate judges; and the salary of Texas’ District Court judges ranks 26th in the nation when compared with the salary of other general-jurisdiction court judges.

• The age of judges serving in the Texas judiciary is increasing, and it is anticipated that many may retire in the near future making it more important than ever to set compensation at a level adequate to recruit a future generation of judges to the bench.

• Regular, systematic increases make judicial compensation more predictable and are essential to ensure that judicial compensation remains at a level that is sufficient to attract a competent and well-qualified judiciary.

• The ability of the Commission to ensure its recommendations are brought before the Legislature is hampered by the fact that there is no formal mechanism for legislators to consider the recommendation.

• To become a judge, many attorneys may not only have to take a decrease in salary but may also have to relinquish many opportunities for income and investment due to the code of judicial conduct that is unique to the judicial branch of government.

• While every public servant knows that they are unlikely to earn as much as they would in the private sector, the current level of and process for establishing judicial compensation are disincentives for high quality, experienced attorneys to enter the judiciary. They are also incentives for current judges to leave the judiciary, as has been testified to by numerous judges at each of the Commission’s Public Comment Committee meetings held since the creation of the Commission.

Over the past two decades, State appropriations provided for the operation of the judicial branch of the government has averaged about one-third of one percent of the total State budget.

Most of the money used to operate the courts within the Texas judicial system is provided by the counties or cities, with a more limited amount of funds provided by the State.

The State provides full funding only for the operation of the Supreme Court, the Court of Criminal Appeals, the Third Court of Appeals located in Austin, and certain statewide agencies of the judicial branch. It provides a basic appropriation for the operation of the remaining 13 Courts of Appeals.

State appropriations provide the entire salaries of the justices of the Supreme Court and judges of the Court of Criminal Appeals; they also provide a base salary for the justices of the courts of appeals and the judges of the district courts, which by statute may be supplemented by local governments.

The 254 counties of the State provide funds for operation of the district courts, and provide most of the funding for constitutional county courts, county courts at law, and justice of the peace courts. In most instances, the counties also provide supplemental pay to the judges of the courts of appeals and district courts serving their areas.

City governments provide the entire funding for the operations of their own municipal courts.

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Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, represents House District 40 in Hidalgo County, which includes portions or all of Edinburg, Elsa, Faysville, La Blanca, Linn, Lópezville, McAllen, Pharr and Weslaco. He may be reached at his House District Office in Edinburg at (956) 383-0860 or at the Capitol at (512) 463-0426.

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