State Bar of Georgia
State Bar of Georgia

Georgia Bar Journal
February 2024, Vol. 29, No. 4

Competitive, Consistent Pay for Georgia Judges

I have always said that my favorite job was serving as a trial judge in the State Court of DeKalb County. But in 2011, I faced a pivotal decision for financial reasons. The stock market crash of a few years earlier had decimated my savings, and I no longer could fund my children’s private school tuition on my judge’s salary.

I had to make a difficult choice: leave a job that I loved or remove my children from the only school they had ever known. For me, that, ultimately, was an easy decision. I resigned from the bench and returned to private law practice, where I could make a significantly better living.

I am not the only judge in Georgia who has faced the difficult choice to leave the bench—far from it. Many jurists have left the bench for financial reasons, and the corollary to that is that many successful attorneys in our state, especially in the Atlanta area, do not become judges simply because we do not pay them well enough.

Hopefully, that will change in the near future. During the current session of the Georgia General Assembly, legislation that would reform our state’s judicial compensation system in a comprehensive manner and significantly improve judicial salaries is under consideration. HB 947, sponsored by Rep. Rob Leverett (R-Elberton), an attorney, was approved overwhelmingly by the House of Representatives and as of Feb. 23 was under review in the Senate Appropriations Committee.

This legislative attention is certainly welcome and long overdue. A 2016 report found that Georgia’s judicial compensation system was “riddled with anomalies and inconsistencies,” and a December 2022 report found that many inconsistencies and disparities persist. Compared to other states, Georgia judicial salaries presently rank 32nd in the United States for Supreme Court justices, 23rd for Court of Appeals judges and 49th for the state-funded portion of compensation to Superior Court judges (ahead of only West Virginia).

It is worth noting that Georgia’s entire judicial budget, as allocated for fiscal year 2024, accounts for only 0.6% of state government spending.

I serve on the Judicial Council of Georgia’s Ad Hoc Committee on Judicial Salaries and Supplements. The Judicial Council, under the leadership of Presiding Justice Nels Peterson and Justice Charlie Bethel of the Supreme Court of Georgia, has been instrumental in working with Leverett and other legislative leaders on the proposal, which if it becomes law, would:

  • Address the substantial and longstanding disparity in the compensation of Superior Court judges;
  • Provide stability and predictability to the compensation of state-paid judges;
  • Address the stagnation in judicial pay; and
  • Account for differences in cost of living.

Under the reform model, Georgia’s national salary rankings would improve to 15th for Supreme Court justices and 12th for Court of Appeals judges. After local supplements that vary wildly among judicial circuits across the state, some Superior Court judges’ salaries in Georgia rank 45th nationally, while others rank as high as fifth. The reform model would improve the lowest ranking from 45th to 14th; the highest ranking would remain at fifth in the nation with an optional locality pay, which would be limited to 10% of the state salary.

For a broader view on the need for judicial pay reform, I reached out to three other former Georgia jurists who left the bench for the same reason I did. I am thankful to former Supreme Court of Georgia Chief Justice Harold Melton, former Supreme Court of Georgia Justice Keith Blackwell and former DeKalb County State Court Judge Dax López for sharing their individual perspectives.

Having served on a commission created by former Gov. Nathan Deal and overseen by the late then-Chief Justice Harris Hines nearly a decade ago, Melton noted that the current legislative effort is actually years in the making.

“There was a time when it was harder to make people believe that an increase in pay was necessary to maintain and recruit a good pool of judges to select from,” said Melton, now a partner at Troutman Pepper in Atlanta. “But I think we’re actually at the point now where that is the case. Obviously, judges go into that work knowing that there is a substantial discount for public service. The gap is pretty big, though. That discount is becoming steeper and steeper.”

Melton served on the Court for 16 years before his move into private practice, a time when he said he was “staring at college tuition” for his children. He said the dual challenge of retaining and replacing experienced judges should be of concern to all Georgians.

“You do face the prospect of judges leaving after 10 or 15 years,” he said. “If you want to keep the judges past that point, there probably will need to be some type of financial incentive. It really is more acute with the appellate court judges because you are more likely to be in the Atlanta metro area, either because that’s where you live or because that’s where you’re traveling to on a regular basis and you have to have some form of housing if you’re substantially away from the Atlanta area, further than Macon, perhaps.”

Reducing the inconsistency in local supplements for Superior Court judges among Georgia’s judicial circuits and how that impacts the pay difference between trial court judges and statewide appellate court judges is also a key component of reform, Melton said.

“The appellate judges don’t have the supplements that the metro circuits have, so that the supplements bring the trial court judges well above what the appellate court judges are making,” he noted. “I think that is a very important system to consider how it can be retooled. It really is a haphazard system as it exists right now, the net effect being that probably at least one-third of the trial court judges make more than the appellate court judges. It takes some real effort to try to right-size salary structure and create a structure going forward that makes sense.”

Melton said he is glad the Legislature is addressing the judicial pay issue. “Judges make enough where people don’t feel sorry for them, and attention typically goes toward teachers first and maybe in today’s budgetary environment, correctional officers and things along those lines,” he said. “The circumstances separating judges and correctional officers are completely different.

“But your good judges have options. We want the judges who could be doing something else. If they could be doing something else, there’s a good chance they could be making at least double, easily. And for many of them, three or four times as much is not too far outside the realm of possibility. The judges aren’t asking the Legislature to pay them twice as much. But there are some things I think judges want to be able to provide for that a pay raise would be very helpful toward.”

Blackwell, a judge on the Court of Appeals of Georgia prior to serving as a Supreme Court justice from 2012 through 2020 and who is now senior counsel with Alston & Bird in Atlanta, amplified the differences between private practice income potential and that for members of the judiciary. He also expressed the need for legislative provisions that would “establish a framework ... to keep judicial compensation from inflation-driven diminution.”

“No one enters—or at least, no one ought to enter—public service to become wealthy,” he said. “Public service inevitably involves personal sacrifice, and notwithstanding the sacrifice, we are fortunate to have had many talented lawyers offer themselves for judicial service in Georgia. But there are limits to how much personal sacrifice we should expect of our judges. If we want to continue to attract talented men and women to judicial service—and to keep them there—we have to pay them a comparatively fair wage in the context of the legal market. That first-year associates at Atlanta law firms are now paid substantially more than our appellate judges is just wrong, and it is an impediment to keeping good judges on the bench.”

Blackwell added, “It is not enough, however, to give our judges a one-time raise. Looking to the future, judicial compensation must keep pace with increases in the costs of living, and in Georgia, it historically has not. For instance, in my 10 years of judicial service at the Court of Appeals and Supreme Court, my annual compensation in real dollars decreased by nearly $20,000. [Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics’ CPI Inflation Calculator.] Year after year, the buying power of my judicial salary was diminished by inflation, and as my children entered high school, started driving and began to look at colleges, the continuing diminution of my compensation became an increasingly apparent problem for my family. It eventually led me to retire from judicial service and return to the private practice of law. I am quite certain that my story is not a unique one among Georgia judges.”

López, who is now my law partner at DelCampo Grayson López in Atlanta, agreed with the comments of Justices Melton and Blackwell. “While having served the people of DeKalb as a judge for 11 years was one of the greatest honors of my professional life, the financial realities of being a public servant prevented me from continuing to serve,” he said. “I have four children, and as my older children started nearing college age, it became apparent that I could no longer continue to meet my obligations on my judicial pay, particularly when I knew I could make substantially more in the private sector. My story is not unique. Most of the judges I know who have left the bench left not because they wanted to, but because they had to do what made financial sense for their families.”

Adequate compensation for the leaders of Georgia’s judicial branch is sound and necessary public policy. “How are we to attract the best and brightest in our profession to serve in one of the most important roles in government if we don’t pay them what they need to take care of their families?” López asked. “To be a judge is to be a public servant. It is a calling and a sacrifice. I was happy to serve for 11 years, and my family was happy to make that sacrifice for that time. However, if we want to retain good judges, this is an issue that must be addressed. I do not expect judges to be paid like a private sector partner at a major law firm. But judges should at least make what a mid-level associate does.”

From a broad view, HB 947 establishes a maximum salary for Supreme Court justices, Court of Appeals judges, the State-wide Business Court judge and Superior Court judges. Specific salaries in each annual budget would be set through the General Assembly’s regular appropriations process.

The maximum salary structure for judges at each court level would be calculated at a formula tied each year to the salary of U.S. District Court judges in the Northern District of Georgia from two years prior. The maximum annual salary for Supreme Court justices would be 100% of that number or currently $223,400; for Court of Appeals judges, 95% or $212,230; for the State-wide Business Court judge, 92% or $205,528; and for Superior Court judges, 90% or $201,060. The current local supplement system for Superior Court judges would be largely replaced by a “locality pay” addition of 10% of the judge’s salary, bringing the total pay for Superior Court judges to a maximum of $221,166.

The proposal also provides for an “opt-in” requirement for current judges, who would have until Oct. 1 to opt in by filing a written notice with the Council of Superior Court Judges and the governing authority of each county in the circuit. If they don’t meet the deadline, they stay under the current system.

I commend the House of Representatives for approving HB 947 in a bipartisan vote of 154-13 on Feb. 15. I hope the Senate will do the same or pass a version that both sides can agree to and Gov. Brian Kemp can sign into law. The state of Georgia needs a compensation system that pays our judges competitively and consistently for the vital and increasingly difficult duties they fulfill in our system of justice.