The National Center for State Courts just released new rankings of judicial salaries. How does North Carolina fare? Continue reading
Tag Archives: compensation
I blogged about judges’ salaries here. An article in the USA Today this morning prompted me to think a little bit about prosecutors’ pay. The article, available here, reports on several state and federal prosecutors’ offices that have “hired” lawyers to work for free. All the offices in question are fully staffed with paid lawyers, but saw an opportunity to get extra help at no cost, and simultaneously to provide experience to lawyers who might otherwise be out of work.
I haven’t heard of volunteer prosecutors in North Carolina, though perhaps there are some out there. Pursuant to G.S. 7A-65, elected district attorneys are paid “as provided in the Current Operations Appropriations Act,” i.e., as provided in the state budget. As far as I can tell, the last budget to alter their salaries was the 2008 budget, which raised them from $116,112 to $119,305. Elected district attorneys are also eligible for longevity pay under G.S. 7A-65, which effectively provides a 4.8% salary supplement for every five years of state service. Thus, an elected district attorney with more than fifteen but less than twenty years of state service would receive a $17,178 supplement.
Assistant district attorneys are likewise paid as provided in the budget. Again, the 2008 budget appears to contain the last salary alteration for assistant district attorneys. It provides as follows:
The district attorney . . . of a judicial district, with the approval of the Administrative Officer of the Courts . . . shall set the salaries of assistant district attorneys . . . in that district such that the average salaries of assistant district attorneys . . . in that district do not exceed seventy thousand nine hundred forty‑six dollars ($70,946), and the minimum salary of any assistant district attorney . . . is at least thirty‑seven thousand one hundred eighty‑two dollars ($37,182).
My understanding is that the Administrative Office of the Courts generally defers to the elected district attorneys’ salary decisions. Assistant district attorneys are also eligible for longevity pay as described above. So an assistant district attorney with more than five but less than ten years of experience who is making $65,000 would receive a salary supplement of $6,240.
How does all this stack up in context? As I noted in my post about judges’ salaries, the average North Carolina lawyer makes $113,000 per year. Every elected district attorney makes more than that, though relatively few assistant district attorneys probably do, even with longevity pay. Nationally, I had trouble finding appropriate comparison data. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported in 2005 that the median salary for chief prosecutors nationwide was $85,000, but that appears to have included some “part-time offices,” so it may not be a very useful benchmark. I couldn’t find anything more than anecdotal reports about assistant prosecutors’ salaries. If anyone else knows of good data, please post a comment or let me know.
The News and Observer reported last week that Alan Gell will receive $3.9 million from the SBI. Most readers probably know the basics about the Gell case: he was convicted of murder and spent nine years in prison, but was granted a new trial after defense counsel uncovered evidence — known to the SBI and/or the trial prosecutors, but not originally disclosed to the defense — that tended to fix the time of death at a time that Gell was in jail on an unrelated matter. Gell was acquitted on retrial, and sued the SBI and others. This story led me to learn a bit about North Carolina law regarding compensation for people who are wrongly convicted. I thought that others might be interested in the subject, too.
The most obvious source of such compensation in North Carolina is G.S. 148-82 through G.S. 148-84. Those statutes provide for the Industrial Commission to award exonerees $50,000 for each year spent in prison, plus job training and college tuition, up to a maximum of $750,000. However, those statutes apply only to persons “granted a pardon of innocence by the Governor upon the grounds that the crime with which the person was charged either was not committed at all or was not committed by that person.” Some recent North Carolina exonerees have received such pardons and have claimed compensation under the statute. (See, for example, this story about Darryl Hunt.) Gell hasn’t received such a pardon and so isn’t eligible for statutory compensation.
Whether an exoneree receives statutory compensation or not, he or she may apparently pursue other remedies. I know very little about the possible civil causes of action in such cases, but other lawyers clearly do: Hunt sought and received compensation from the City of Winston-Salem, while Gell received compensation from the SBI and the City of Aulander. It’s interesting that an exoneree may both receive the statutory compensation and pursue other remedies, especially since the statutory compensation is awarded by the Industrial Commission. In workers’ compensation cases, which are the Commission’s bread and butter, my understanding is that an award is in lieu of, not in addition to, other remedies. As this article observes, it appears that at least some other states have adopted that rule for exoneree compensation. Anyone know more about North Carolina’s choice to allow exonerees to do both?
Finally, as the foregoing suggests, other states vary considerably in their approaches. Some have no statutory compensation at all, while others have much lower compensation limits than North Carolina. Some distinguish between time on death row and non-death-row time. Texas, interestingly, has the most generous compensation limits of all, as noted here, and has made a number of exonerees instant millionaires. Given the many, many stories about athletes and lottery winners who have squandered their sudden fortunes, I hope that suddenly wealthy exonerees get good financial guidance. Alan Gell appears to be receiving monthly annuity payments from his settlement, which probably reduces the risk of a serious misstep.
Stephen Larson, a federal district judge in California, resigned recently, citing his low salary. (District judges make $169,300 per year.) This has resulted in a robust discussion of whether federal judges are underpaid. Various opinions on the issue are available here, here, and here.
Although I don’t have any special expertise in compensation issues, two points made by others in the debate struck me as worth repeating. First, any discussion of judges’ salaries should include a discussion of the very generous retirement and other benefits offered to judges. And second, federal judgeships remain highly sought-after, including among the best and brightest lawyers, and resignation rates are incredibly low.
Even assuming that federal judges are adequately compensated, though, what about state court judges? In North Carolina, at least, they make far less than their federal counterparts. As of 2006, North Carolina Superior Court judges were paid $115,289, and district court judges were paid $101,376. The state, like the federal government, offers attractive benefits to judges, but even so, it is worth asking whether judicial salaries in North Carolina are too low to attract the best possible talent. (The North Carolina Bar Association — historically an advocate for higher judicial pay — is asking that question, as reported here.)
A bit of context provides food for thought. The average North Carolina worker earns $38,230 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The average North Carolina lawyer makes just over $113,000. First-year associates at the largest law firms now make $160,000 per year, as reported here.
I don’t know whether the quality of the our judiciary is being adversely impacted by judges’ salaries. The salaries are still pretty good compared to what most nonlawyers, and many lawyers, make. And the prestige of the job counts for something, too. (Heck, some judges are even willing to serve for free, as this inspiring story shows.) But my unscientific sense is that judicial compensation in North Carolina is at least bordering on being too low. One fact that lends some weight to that worry: big firm lawyers rarely become state court judges in North Carolina. That may in part be because of the process — i.e., the need to run for election — but it may also in part be because of the salary. And once a whole segment of the legal community rules out serving on the bench, the strength and diversity of the judiciary may be at risk.