Top judge pitches judicial pay raises

ATLANTA - Georgia Chief Justice Leah Sears endorsed a judicial pay raise Wednesday, the same day a House Republican leader introduced legislation increasing salaries for Supreme Court, Court of Appeals and Superior Court judges.

"Fortuitous timing, wouldn't you say?'' Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Atlanta, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, quipped after Sears delivered her annual State of the Judiciary address to a joint session of the General Assembly.

In a wide-ranging 26-minute speech, Sears pitched judicial raises as part of an overdue need for an overall increase in funding for Georgia's judiciary.

She said judges' salaries haven't been raised since 1999, other than cost-of-living adjustments.

"For the past several years, our judicial system has responded to the increasing demands placed upon it with little more than the same number of employees receiving little more than the same level of compensation,'' she said.

"We have sought increases only when we were convinced they were vital to our mission.''

Willard served on a state commission that met during the last two years to consider whether Georgia's judicial salaries should be raised to attract and keep quality judges.

He said the panel's conclusion was an emphatic "yes.''

Willard cited several examples of good judges who have left the bench to return to private legal practice because they weren't making enough money to support their growing families.

His bill would raise the annual salaries of state Supreme Court justices to $194,808, while judges on the Georgia Court of Appeals would be paid $193,651 a year.

Under the last judicial salary bill approved by the legislature, several cost of living increases ago, members of the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals were earning just less than $140,000.

Willard's bill also would increase annual pay for Superior Court judges to just more than $140,000, up from about $100,000 a year under the previous legislation.

Overall, Sears asked lawmakers to support a 6 percent increase in the judiciary's budget for the fiscal year that starts in July.

On other issues, the chief justice didn't address directly proposals floated by some Republican leaders since last fall's elections to add two justices to the seven-member Supreme Court and make judicial elections partisan. Judges in Georgia do not run for office under party labels.

Some GOP insiders, including Gov. Sonny Perdue, backed challenger Mike Wiggins' failed bid last fall to unseat Justice Carol Hunstein, a campaign in which he contended that she was too liberal for Georgia voters.

Sears beat back an effort based on a similar theme in 2004 to win reelection.

Last month, Sears rejected both ideas for change at a legislative conference in Athens and suggested that lawmakers leave the courts alone.

On Wednesday, she made a more veiled plea to the legislature to support a judiciary that is independent from influence by the executive or legislative branches of government.

"Fortunately, the people of Georgia seem to cherish the wisdom of this separation of powers,'' she said. "It is fundamental. It is compelling. It is not negotiable. And it is nonpartisan.''

Sears made no mention, direct or otherwise, of the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council's request for a budget increase to cover its activities for the rest of the current fiscal year.

Council Executive Director Michael Mears has told legislative budget writers the agency is running low on cash, in part because of unanticipated costs involved in the case of Brian Nichols, the accused Fulton County Courthouse gunman.

"That's too complex to get into,'' Sears told reporters after her speech.

She said it will be up to council officials to make their case with lawmakers.