Justice O'Connor, be more judicious when talking about a pay raise


Whem most Ohioans are earning less and paying more for everything, Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor is pushing judicial pay raises. In her recent State of the Judiciary speech, she bemoaned the fact that Ohio judges haven't had a pay raise since 2008.

Cry me a river.

"This is the longest stretch of stagnation in judicial salaries since the 1950s," she told supportive associates. "I am hopeful this issue will be addressed very soon," said the state's top judge, who receives $150,850 a year.

"We do have advocates in the General Assembly who agree that judges are underpaid in Ohio," she assured the Ohio Judicial Conference. The hardships posed by chintzy six-figure incomes cannot be overstated.

Justices on the Ohio Supreme Court make $141,600 annually. Ohio appellate judges are paid $132,000; common pleas court judges, $121,350, and full-time municipal court judges, $114,100.

A 2011 national survey of judicial salaries found higher compensation for state judges in places such as California. The survey said overall judicial pay is failing to keep pace with inflation.

But we're talking Ohio. The yearly median household income, on average, is about $47,000. How does that keep pace with the rising cost of living?

Studies that track inflation-adjusted wages in Ohio and nationwide show they have continued to slip below the rate of inflation. People can't get ahead.

Surely not with persistent pay cuts dashing hopes of higher pay. Not with mounting household bills. Not with reduced shifts or prolonged unemployment.

Landing a new job brings relief, but seldom the pay many workers once made. It's why families eat tuna instead of steak, cut coupons, put big and small purchases on hold, and forgo vacations.

When the price of essentials, from groceries to gasoline, tuition to medical care, climbs nonstop, folks can barely make ends meet.

It doesn't help that we feel powerless to bargain for better pay. Those who labor under the prevailing market premise that they're lucky to be employed have no workplace leverage.

They take their lumps in reduced paychecks, sick days, time off. Few turn down overtime. But it's never been more expensive to fill a gas tank or pay for food, shelter, and clothing with stagnant or declining incomes.

Instead of a light at the end of the tunnel, there's only uncertainty. While private-sector employees are at the mercy of profit-driven management, it's arguably worse for public-sector workers.

Their livelihoods are under assault as federal and state governments slash spending to reduce budget deficits. Last year, according to a U.S. Census Bureau report, state and local governments in Ohio pushed more than 12,000 people off their payrolls.

That's a lot of teachers, firefighters, and police officers. Research by the nonpartisan advocacy group Policy Matters Ohio suggests that the extent of public-sector layoffs in Ohio since 2009 has helped keep the recovery weak.

Yet despite thousands of government jobs lost, the repercussions to reeling local communities, and the financial difficulties that burden many Ohioans, Chief Justice O'Connor is angling for a pay raise.

Judges and all other elected officials in Ohio deserve a pay hike, she declared, seemingly indifferent to the vast constituency in the state that is losing ground.

Is she in sync with Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who recently discounted the travails of the great unwashed at a $50,000-a-plate fund-raiser? Could the Republican jurist be as disconnected from everyday life as Mr. Romney, who brushed off nearly half of the American population?

Chief Justice O'Connor appears to run with the same crowd that considers 47 percent of us goldbrickers, unworthy of worry. Far be it from me to question the value of her judicial pay increase for the purpose of, as she says, "building more efficient courts."

But the people who work for us are expected to act in our best interest. In a perfect world, hardworking public servants who perform admirably would be suitably rewarded from government coffers overflowing with tax revenue.

Such is not the case in Ohio. We have bigger problems to tackle.

Perhaps someday, when we get our belated pay raises, the chief justice and her needy colleagues will get what they have coming.

Marilou Johanek is a columnist for The Blade. Contact her at: mjohanek@theblade.com