Delaware’s chief justice pushes for higher salaries for judges

DOVER — Delaware’s top officials are underpaid, the head of the state’s judiciary told a committee working to revise salaries Monday.

The 57 judges on the state’s top five courts are each paid at least $177,066, but they earn less than their counterparts in the federal government and states such as California, Pennsylvania and New York — useful comparisons given the degree to which Delaware’s judiciary impacts the local economy, Chief Justice Leo Strine insisted.

Top lawyers can make hundreds of thousands in private practice and while Delaware’s judges made more than those in several comparable states and the federal government in 2006, they have since fallen behind.

The Delaware Compensation Commission, which meets every four years, is tasked with analyzing the pay for elected officials, cabinet secretaries and, yes, judges. The goal, they claim, is to keep salaries high enough to attract the talent needed to help the state thrive.

It is due to present a recommendation to the General Assembly early next month.

With the chief justice appearing before the commission Monday most of the time was spent on judicial salaries.

While the state would save money by paying judges less, it would suffer for it in the long run, Chief Justice Strine said.

Leo Strine by .

Leo Strine

“Part of what this was set up to do was to attract the best, most capable people for the state of Delaware in a cost-effective way. And so, I think the commission has to keep its eye on that,” he said.

“For example, think many of our elected offices. If you set the pay at $27,000, that would be good for everybody willing to serve at $27,000. You won’t necessarily attract the best people, and that’s also true of the judiciary.”

Referring to the courts’ “unique role” in Delaware, he described the various ways the judicial system impacts the state, both budget-wise and beyond. Famous for its incorporation laws and long-practicing Court of Chancery, Delaware is home to two-thirds of the Fortune 500 companies and hosts more than 1 million legal entities.

According to a presentation from the Delaware Bar Association, taxes and fees from corporations brought in more than a billion dollars for the state two years ago.

“We feel confident the bang for the buck the public gets is great,” Chief Justice Strine told the commission.

Members of the Bar Association also spoke in favor of increasing judicial salaries, with lawyer Mike Houghton saying it has become “work” for the committee that nominates people for judgeships to find experienced and talented applicants.

Because skilled lawyers can make more money in private practice, they can be hesitant to join the bench, several people said Monday.

“It’s a disservice to the democracy, not to overstate it, to have only the wealthy or the privileged apply for these judicial positions and I think we are at risk, frankly, of going there,” Mr. Houghton said.

The Bar Association’s recommendations include bumping the justices’ pay up by about $35,000 and increasing salaries for judges on the Court of Chancery, Superior Court and Family Court by about $32,000. Salaries for members of each of the four courts would then exceed $215,000. Other members of the judiciary would also see pay raises.

The courts are formally proposing raising justices up to around $215,000 and other top judges to about $203,000, with increases for Court of Common Pleas judges, magistrates and commissioners as well.

Chief Justice Strine also spoke briefly on cabinet secretaries, calling the head of the Delaware Health and Social Services “atrociously underpaid.”

Every cabinet secretary currently makes six figures, ranging from $21,333 to $163,055. The DHSS chief is being paid $150,088 this fiscal year.

Members of the commission briefly discussed the pending budget shortfall, expected to be at least $200 million, and agreed to keep it in mind with their final proposal while not necessarily being bound by it.

They opted not to debate changing pensions and rejected a suggestion from the chief justice to bring back state vehicles for cabinet secretaries — “a can of worms,” Don Puglisi said — which were eliminated in 2009.

According to data from the group, the lieutenant governor, auditor, insurance commissioner and Delaware Economic Development Office director make less than comparable officeholders in other states.

The commission’s 2013 report was rejected, and it did not produce one in 2009 due to the economic climate. Members will meet again next week.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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