Judges in Maine courts are the lowest paid in the country.

A special legislative commission re-established by lawmakers this year will meet Wednesday to consider increasing pay for judges, the governor – also the nation’s lowest paid, at $70,000 a year – and state lawmakers.

Maine is ranked 51st among the states and the District of Columbia in pay for general jurisdiction judges – those who handle most of the legal cases in state district and superior courts – with an average salary of $113,000 a year when adjusted for the local cost-of-living index, according to a report by the National Center for State Courts. The median pay nationally for that category is $155,000, and Tennessee pays the most, an average of $194,877.

Josh Tardy, an attorney and former Republican state lawmaker from Newport, will answer questions about compensation and its impact on recruiting judges when he appears before the Maine Commission on State Compensation on Wednesday. He served both former Republican Gov. Paul LePage and Democratic Gov. Janet Mills on a panel that recommends judicial appointments.

“It’s still a very competitive process in Maine to be appointed to the bench, but for some attorneys coming out of the private sector it may not be a viable option,” Tardy said.

The commission is also expected to make recommendations in January on increasing salaries for the governor and lawmakers.

The commission has been inactive since 1999 but was brought back through legislation sponsored by Rep. Chris Babbidge, a Democrat from Kennebunk who argues that Maine’s top public officials deserve a raise.

“Public service need not be lucrative,” Babbidge said in testimony on his bill, “but Maine citizens are not best served if their elected leaders draw compensation that presents worrisome challenges.”

Mills will have as many as six judicial nominations to make in 2020, including one to replace supreme court Associate Justice Jeffrey Hjelm, who announced his retirement in September.

Tardy said Tuesday he served on a 2012 judicial compensation commission that recommended salary increases for judges. They were ultimately approved, but didn’t seem to advance the state beyond the “status quo.”

The law creating the commission states that former legislators or legislative staff members cannot serve on it. At least one member, Kay Rand, did work for former independent Gov. Angus King, now a U.S. senator.

State lawmakers are paid just over $24,000 for the two-year lawmaking session as well as per diem allowances for meals, transportation and lodging for those who must travel more than 150 miles to the State House. Were that pay simply adjusted for inflation, lawmakers would be paid $36,365 for the two-year term, Babbidge said. But in testimony to the Legislature’s State and Local Government Committee, Babbidge suggested raising lawmaker pay to $23,500 a year – the federal poverty level for a family of four, before it was increased $25,100.

Babbidge said the governor’s salary should be set at $141,000 a year – three times the salary for legislators. But because lawmakers only work six months a year and the governor works 12, the governor should be paid six times the $23,500 proposed for legislators, Babbidge said.

LePage unsuccessfully proposed increasing the salary for his successor from the current $70,000 a year to $150,000.

Babbidge also suggested that to avoid conflict, the Legislature should make any pay increases effective December of 2022 – this would mean they would not be voting to increase their own pay, but that of the next Legislature.

 

 

 

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