Palmetto State judges could get an 11 percent pay raise if a Senate-backed budget proposal becomes law.
It’s a pay hike that one senator said would be unfair to other state employees who could get a $800 bonus this year, but will not get a pay rise.
That plan would mean a $16,645 pay raise for S.C. Supreme Court Justice Jean Toal, boosting her salary to $167,962 a year. The 11 percent pay raise also would apply to other state judges, solicitors and public defenders.
The Judicial Department is asking lawmakers to allow it to use $5.3 million in leftover money that it has and an additional $1 million in new state funding to cover the raises.
The proposal — sponsored by state Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington, and eight others, split between Democrats and Republicans — passed 23-19 last Thursday, about an hour before the Senate adopted its version of the state budget that takes effect July 1.
Before the vote, Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney, urged lawmakers to reject the pay raises, saying they were unfair to other state employees.
“For the last two or three days we were debating this, I passed by state employees ... that clean our bathroom, that protect us here,” Peeler said. “Not one of them asked for me to vote for their $800 bonus. But the chief justice ... was outside lobbying for a pay raise.
“It does not smell right because it is not right.”
Toal, who retires at the end of this year, said Senate Finance Committee chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, and others asked her to come to the Senate last week to answer questions about the pay raises. The raises are necessary to attract talented lawyers to become judges, she said.
South Carolina ranks 37th in the nation for Supreme Court justice salaries, according to the National Center for State Courts.
U.S. District Court judges in South Carolina made about $199,000 last year. U.S. magistrates made about $183,000, Toal said, adding she originally had asked for raises of more than 11 percent. Circuit Court judges in South Carolina make $136,905 a year.
Toal noted some attorneys for state agencies are paid more than Supreme Court justices, the state’s highest-paid judges. A University of South Carolina attorney, for example, earns $263,299 a year.
Toal said the pay raises would “encourage young members of the profession to accept judicial service” and let lawyers “feel they can still accept this vocation and still raise a family and send their children to college.”
State employees, including judges, received a 2 percent pay increase last year.
But this year, House and Senate budget writers did not include an across-the-board pay raise for state employees in their budget proposals, opting instead to have the state pay for employees’ increased health-care costs.
The Senate also voted to give state employees a one-time $800 bonus.
A House and Senate conference committee will decide whether those bonuses and the judicial pay raises stay in the budget as the legislative session draws to an end.
State Rep. Mike Pitts, R-Laurens, said the pay raises would ensure the best judges are on the bench. “If I’m the person standing in front of a judge, I want the best balance in those scales.”
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