Justice calls for raise

ATLANTA --- Georgia Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears on Wednesday urged lawmakers to hand the state's judges a pay raise.


Chief Justice Sears -- the first black woman to lead Georgia's top court -- said in her State of the Judiciary address that except for cost of living increases, jurists haven't had a pay increase since 1999.

"Our judges deserve a little justice, too," she told a joint session of the state Legislature on Wednesday. "When you adjust for inflation, the purchasing power of the state Supreme Court justices is 17 percent less than it was in 1999."

State lawmakers seemed open to Chief Justice Sears' call.

"I think we will have a pay increase and I think it will happen this year," said state Sen. Preston Smith, a Republican from Rome who heads the appropriations panel that oversees judicial spending.

Mr. Smith said it remains to be seen how much that raise will be. A bill is pending in the House that would boost salaries of Supreme Court, Court of Appeals and Superior Court judges by 22 to 28 percent. The State Bar of Georgia recommended a 20 percent across-the-board increase in judicial compensation.

Superior Court judges currently make $99,862, according to the bill. Court of Appeals judges earn $138,556 and Supreme Court justices $139,418.

Counties in some judicial circuits also pay Superior Court judges additional supplements, which boost their total paycheck.

Chief Justice Sears said during her tenure as chief justice, the judiciary has continued to represent just 1 percent of the state's budget. At the same time, the court system collected more than $433 million in fines, fees and surcharges in fiscal year 2007. About $87 million of that flowed into the state general fund. Some of it also went to cities and counties.

Chief Justice Sears made no mention on Wednesday of the chronic funding crunch that the state's public defenders have been wrestling with. The midyear budget that passed last week in the House contained an additional $3.6 million for public defenders, enough for them to avoid furloughing staff before the June 30 end of the state fiscal year. But it's unclear what the state Senate will do with the spending plan.

Chief Justice Sears used most of her speech in the House chamber to extol judges for taking on an increased workload and adapting to ever-changing demands of the job from the intricacies of family court and the science of DNA to the scourge of methamphetamine and the challenges of metal illness.

"Georgia's justice system is sound, solid and strong," she said.