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Raise Supreme Court Justices' Salaries, then Change the System

Crain's Detroit Business CRAINSDETROIT.COM

Have you gotten a raise in the past 17 years?

Well, you're better off than Michigan's Supreme Court justices, a problem that it's past time to fix.

In an extraordinary letter to the panel that makes salary recommendations for Michigan elected officials, state Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget McCormack last week made a plea for a raise for herself and fellow justices from their current $164,610 per year.

She rightly points out that pay for state employees overall has risen by 40 percent since the court's last raise in 2002.

The cause of this imbalance is structural and inherent in the system by which Michigan sets pay for its elected officials. The State Officers Compensation Commission makes annual salary recommendations for all statewide elected officials: the governor and lieutenant governor, legislators and Supreme Court justices.

The next step is the problem. The Legislature has to vote yes or no on the whole package — or simply not vote on it. Because it's politically tricky to be seen raising their own pay, lawmakers are reluctant to take up the recommendations or vote in favor of them.

This has consequences for the kind of talent the state can draw into its most important positions. Certainly, political power has draws of its own, but a Supreme Court justice can easily make several times his or her salary as a justice at a big private law firm. 

A 2018 survey by legal search firm Major, Lindsey & Africa found that partners at large law firms can pull average compensation of $885,000 a year, making judicial salaries seem like peanuts.

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