Wyoming Supreme Court Chief Justice says state judges need pay raises despite budget problems

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — The chief justice of the Wyoming Supreme Court asked the state Legislature on Monday to grant pay raises to judges and court employees, even though other state employees may go without increases because of a budget shortfall.

“Although we know revenues are limited, we also know this body will consider spending millions more than we’re asking for on optional projects,” Chief Justice Marilyn Kite said. “Equal justice for all is not optional. It is a core function of our government.”

Falling natural gas prices have cut into the state’s projected revenues, and lawmakers are considering canceling plans for any pay raises for state employees to make up for the shortfall.

In addressing a joint session of the Legislature, Kite pointed out that judges and court staff missed out on pay raises granted to executive branch workers last year.

“And now an entry level attorney can go to work for the attorney general’s office for $4,000 more than they can go to work for the Supreme Court,” she said.

The 2011 Legislature granted $7.1 million in pay raises to executive branch employees. However, Gov. Matt Mead vetoed a $600,000 pay raise for court employees.

She says attracting and retaining quality judges in the future could be at stake if salaries in Wyoming are too low.

The Legislature left it up to him to approve the court pay raise if an independent study found the increase warranted. Mead said leaving it up to him violated separation of powers provisions in the state constitution.

Arguments that it wouldn’t be fair to give court employees and judges pay raises without giving other state workers a raise ignores what happened in 2010, Kite said.

“Fairness does not ignore history,” she said.

Kite noted that fewer top quality people are applying for judicial vacancies.

“We’ve been lucky to maintain a high quality of them, but I truly fear that if salaries do not keep pace this will not continue,” she said. “Correcting this pay gap is not only important to those who serve now but is critical to the future of this branch of government.”

A bill has been proposed this session to increase the salaries of circuit, district and Supreme Court judges.

Kite also briefed lawmakers on the progress being made in judicial system technology efforts and asked them to repeal the state’s constitutionally mandated retirement age of 70 for judges.

“No other state government position is limited in such a way, and many of us are now realizing just how young that is and how much many of us can contribute after that age,” she said.

Source: The Republic