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Federal case may trigger more pay for Mo. judges

Federal case may trigger more pay for Mo. judges

October 21st, 2013 by David A. Lieb, The Associated Press in News

Missouri's judges could be due a multi-million-dollar pay increase if their counterparts in the federal government are able to win a court case seeking a retroactive pay hike.

The potential pay increase could affect more than 400 judges in Missouri, from the chief justice down to associate circuit judges and drug court personnel. It even could lead to pay increases for dozens of full-time local prosecutors.

The administrative arm of Missouri's court system has prepared a budget request for the next fiscal year estimating that the potential judicial pay raise could cost nearly $6.7 million, according to a document provided to The Associated Press. Counties could collectively be on the hook for an additional $1 million of pay for their prosecutors.

A state official is to brief local leaders about the potential budgetary hit during a conference Tuesday sponsored by the Missouri Association of Counties.

"It's somewhat significant, but it's depending on the outcome of the litigation," said Greg Linhares, the Missouri courts administrator.

At issue is a 1989 federal law that limited federal judges' ability to earn money from other sources and in exchange provided them an automatic cost-of-living increase for their salaries. Congress withheld the judges' cost-of-living increases in 1995, 1996, 1997, 1999, 2007 and 2010 while giving other federal employees a pay increase.

Six federal judges sued, and a U.S. appeals court ruled last year that they were entitled to back pay for their denied cost-of-living increases from 2003 onward - the maximum period allowed under the statute of limitations. The Supreme Court this April declined to hear the case, effectively upholding the ruling.

Now some other federal judges are seeking class-action status to apply the cost-of-living pay hikes to more than 1,000 current and former federal judges. It is unclear when there will be a decision on that, but Missouri officials will be watching for one.

A pay scale adopted in 2010 by a Missouri commission links the salaries of Missouri judges to their federal counterparts. State appellate judges are to be paid 69 percent of what comparable federal judges earn. Missouri circuit and associate circuit judges are to be paid 73 percent of what their federal counterparts make.

A separate 1997 Missouri law says full-time prosecutors are to be paid the same amount as associate circuit judges.

So if federal judges win their class-action lawsuit, "the domino effect would be that federal judges would get a raise, state judges would get a raise and full-time prosecutors in Missouri would get a raise," said Jason Lamb, executive director of the Missouri Office of Prosecution Services.

Chief Justice Mary Russell could be due a salary of $174,570, up 13 percent from her current $154,215, according to budget projections from the judiciary. Salaries due to Missouri's circuit judges could rise from $127,020 to $143,883, and the amount due to associate circuit judges could rise from $116,858 annually to $132,372.

Ultimately, it would be up to Missouri lawmakers to put the additional money in the budget.

If they do so for judges, more than 60 full-time prosecutors also would be due a pay raise of more than $15,500 each. That's an amount perhaps easily covered by some of the largest counties but maybe a little harder to manage for others.

Lamb is to outline the scenario Tuesday to county officials. He wants them to be aware of the possibilities, but he adds: "There's a lot of dominoes that would have to occur before anything would happen" in Missouri.