The Judicial Compensation Commission struggled Tuesday but eventually voted unanimously to approve a report that includes a recommendation to raise the salaries of judges by more than 20 percent over the next four years.
The commission was established by the legislature to ensure that the pay of judges reflects the rising cost of living, raises given to other state employees, and the compensation of lawyers with similar skills working in the private sector. It’s been about six years since judges last received a raise.
During its final meeting, the commission approved a report that recommends the legislature find a way to give the state’s judges a 5.3 percent raise in each of the next four years. If approved by lawmakers, the raises would cost the state an additional $1.9 million the first year and $2 million the next.
The raises the commission recommended were less than what was proposed by Chief Justice Chase Rogers. Judges in Connecticut are paid between $146,780 and $175,645.
On Tuesday, the group spent more than two hours tweaking the language of its report in hopes of approving it unanimously. The rationale was that lawmakers will be more inclined to take the recommendations if all the commissioners endorsed it.
No one in the group argued that the judges did not deserve some increase in compensation.
But they did not unanimously agree on how big the raises should be in three of the four years. One member, Johnna Torsone, felt that most of the increases were beyond what the state can afford in its current fiscal condition.
On Wednesday, lawmakers will meet for a special session aimed at closing a $365 shortfall in this year’s budget. The Office of Policy and Management has projected a potential $2.2 billion deficit over the next two years.
“Overall, my reaction when I read this and saw an over 20 percent increase in total, I felt it was, given where we are, too much of a stretch,” Torsone said.
A 4.1 percent increase, instead of 5.3 percent, in each of the three final years seemed more realistic, Torsone said.
Tim Fisher, a lawyer who chairs the commission, called for putting an asterisk on the group’s recommended raises and an explanation to reflect the fact that one member did not agree with the level of increases.
So language was added to the report to indicate that one commissioner believed the totals were beyond the state’s fiscal abilities to support.
But other members, like former state Rep. Bill Dyson, said they felt like the asterisk in their report sent the wrong message, in that it introduced an element of uncertainty.
“What are we trying to accomplish here? Are we seeking, by virtue of the inclusion of the new language, to proceed to a unanimous vote?” he asked. “I’m not doing this harshly, but is this the price you pay to get there?”
Fisher said that was a fair assessment. The alternative to the new language was Torsone voting against the recommendations, he said. But Dyson said the language did not reflect unanimity.
“It establishes within our midst the notion that we do not agree and we seek to move to a vote that’s unanimous. I’m trying to figure here, what do we got?” he said.
Richard Orr, the University of Connecticut’s chief legal officer, said the vote would establish that the commission agreed on the entire report, absent the increase in raises the last three years.
“That’s the effect of acknowledging that we are one vote short on the difference between 4.1 and 5.3 in three out of the four years. If we make that acknowledgement we’re able to say it’s a unanimous report,” Orr said.
Fisher said a unanimous report speaks to more people even if it acknowledges there was some disagreement on the details. He encouraged the group to sign onto it.
Torsone wasn’t the only member who would have liked to see different numbers in the report. Dyson said he would have recommended a higher number for the raises.
“I’m sucking wind and accepting, but there’s no stipulation about it,” he said.
Torsone said she would have no problem if the group would rather have her just dissent.
“Again, I come back to, at a gut level, in this environment, coming out with something over 20 percent total increase just doesn’t feel right to me. So, I know you all disagree with that but I just couldn’t get myself there,” she said.
Orr said it was important to remember that the report wasn’t just “the punchline,” or the total recommended raises.
The group eventually found compromise by inserting language reflecting their differing positions on the raises. The closing marks include the following statement:
“Although not every commissioner necessarily agrees with each and every statement in the report, and some felt that the recommended salary increases should either be higher or lower, the undersigned commissioners endorse the report and the recommendations as evidenced by our signatures below.”
All the members present eventually signed the report, after debating whether it was necessary for every member to sign it. The commission will have until Jan. 2 to finalize the report before submitting it to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy for inclusion in his budget proposal.