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Published: Sunday, 1/18/2004

Debate over Ohio judges questions salary, quality

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU

COLUMBUS - When Ohio s judges feel the need for a pay raise, they must approach the General Assembly, hat in hand, to ask for it.

These are the same judges who ve struck down the legislature s school-funding schemes, batted down their attempts to limit lawsuits, and otherwise interpret Ohio laws every day.

So when Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Moyer called a conference to talk about improving public confidence in the independence of Ohio s judiciary, participants said it should be no surprise that salary should come up.

“What we re aiming for here is not only judges who are excellent judges, but also have the public s confidence that the judges are fair, smart, and dedicated to their jobs,” said Deborah Merritt, executive director of the John Glenn Institute for Public Service and Public Policy at Ohio State University.

“If the position doesn t pay as well as the top quarter of jobs in the legal profession, you may not get the best judges,” she said. Ms. Merritt headed the court-sanctioned work group that last week proposed an immediate pay raise tied to an unspecified percentage of federal judge salaries. This one-time bump would be followed by automatic annual cost-of-living adjustments free of legislative intervention.

According to the National Center for State Courts, the salaries of Ohio s roughly 300 county Common Pleas Court judges rank 31st in the country, 26th once the figures are adjusted for regional costs of living.

In 2002, the latest year for which national statistics were available, Ohio s common pleas, or trial court, judges were paid $107,600, $32,319 less than their counterparts in Michigan.

The Michigan salary of $139,919 was the fourth highest in the country. When adjusted for regional cost of living, the state shot to number one, moving ahead of Washington, New Jersey, and Delaware.

Ohio, the nation s seventh most populated state, trailed its neighbors Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky but was ahead of Indiana and West Virginia. Ohio s District Courts of Appeals judges fared better, ranking 19th with a salary of $117,000. Michigan ranked third at $151,441. The salary for Ohio Supreme Court justices ranked 21st at $125,500, compared to second for Michigan at $164,610.

“Very few people would say that a salary increase is a reform,” said Catherine Turcer of Ohio Citizen Action, which is more interested in reining in the influences of outside special interests on judicial campaigns.

“People who want to be judges are attracted to the idea of giving back to the community, the black robe, the prestige of it, the absolute love of the law,” Ms. Turcer said. “As long as you have a salary that would not make somebody susceptible to bribery and is enough to raise a family, that should be adequate. All of Ohio s judges are making more than $100,000.”

In fact, Ohio s judges have received regular cost-of-living adjustments each year under a mechanism set into place by the General Assembly in 2001, the same time lawmakers raised the pay for themselves and most other elected officials at the state and local levels.

This year, the adjustment was 2.3 percent. Since 2002, Ohio salaries have climbed to $103,450 for municipal judges, $110,050 for common pleas judges, $119,700 for appellate judges, and $128,400 for Supreme Court justices.

As a result of those inflation adjustments, Chief Justice Moyer s salary - $136,800 - has passed Gov. Bob Taft s $130,300. At Mr. Taft s request, his office was exempted from the most recent pay-raise law.

Chief Justice Moyer said salary is a concern when it comes to attracting quality candidates and maintaining a distance between the legislative and judicial branches.

“One thing we do not do well in Ohio is attract mature, mid-career lawyers with 15 to 25 years experience,” he said. “Many would like to come to the bench, but they would have to come at a substantial decrease in income.”

State Rep. Tim Grendell (R., Chesterland) plans to introduce a bill incorporating several of the other reforms proposed in last week s Ohio s “Judicial Impartiality: The Next Steps” report.

Those include lengthening the terms of judges so they won t have to spend as much time campaigning, as well as increasing basic qualification and training requirements.

Salary could emerge as an issue during that debate, but it would occur as a citizens initiative threatens to force the earlier repeal of the state s “temporary” penny sales-tax surcharge. A repeal six months before the July 1, 2005, expiration date would create a budget hole of about $800 million.

Columbus attorney Cliff Arnebeck was on the work group too. Representing the Alliance for Democracy, he has fought a three-year battle with the Ohio Chamber of Commerce over its anonymous bankrolling of ads targeting 2000 Supreme Court races.

He doesn t object to a pay raise. “But unless we address the corporate money that was being infused into Supreme Court elections, the rest of it is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic,” Mr. Arnebeck said.



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