Hawaii Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald had expected state Supreme Court justices and other judges would get an annual pay raise averaging 2.5 percent for each of the next six years.

He came away from Wednesday’s hearing by the Hawaii Commission on Salaries disappointed.

The commission proposed that the governor’s salary would increase from $158,700 to $189,480 by 2024. Top agency executives, such as the attorney general, would see their wages increase from $154,812 to $188,400 during the same time period.

Update: The salaries of state representatives and senators would rise over the six-year period from $62,604 to $74,160. The salaries of the Senate president and House speaker’s would rise to $83,052 from their current $70,104.

By contrast, the recommended annual percentage increases for judges is smaller, even though they make much more money. For example, a Circuit Court judge’s salary would go from $205,080 today to $217,104 in six years.

Given that experienced attorneys in private practice can earn substantially more, Recktenwald figured those increases present a significant challenge in his job running the courts, and finding and keeping good lawyers on the bench.

Still, the result was somewhat better than he first feared. The commission last week proposed limiting judges’s increases to $1,000 a year, which he estimated worked out to just a .5 percent increase and sometimes less, depending on a judge’s salary.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald speaks at Salary Commission meeting.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald speaking at the Salary Commission meeting Wednesday. In his view, judges and justices are underpaid compared to the private sector. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Factor in a cost of living adjustment of about 2 percent annually and Recktenwald said the original recommendation amounted to “a 9 percent pay cut in real terms — that at least is how I calculate it.”

“People become judges because they are committed to public service. We’re honored, we’re grateful to have the opportunity to serve,” he said “But nevertheless, the fact is that we are competing with the private sector to hire the best attorneys.”

The salary commission on Wednesday doubled the amount to $2,000 a year, which will work out to a pay increase of 1 percent a year.

The chief justice advocated for 2 percent annual raises. At one point during the hearing, he asked that the commission allow for judicial pay raises of $3,000, which would have been an increase of as much as 1.5 percent. But the commission voted 5-2 to go with the lower figure.

Update: The pay rates vary from year to year. In 2019, for example, the governor’s salary will increase by 4 percent while his top executives will see an increase of 5 percent. The Legislature will see salaries increase by 10 percent in 2021.

Fruit Basket

The debate over salaries illustrates the challenge of agreeing to an equitable pay system for three very different branches of government.

It can be a mangos-to-guava-to-papaya comparison.

Legislators, for example, make in the mid-five figures but are technically only in session for four months of the year. They also can hold down other jobs and have no term limits.

The governor and his cabinet members make salaries in the low-to-mid-six figures, but governors can only serve a maximum of two four-year terms.

For judiciary, the starting pay for a district or family court judge is $193,272.  These are full-time jobs, and they must retire by age 70.

Rachael Wong listens to the Chief Justice during the Salary Commission meeting.
Rachael Wong of the salary commission listens to Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald during the hearing Wednesday. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Commission members led by Rachael Wong, the vice chairwoman, stressed that it was important to consider the salaries in a larger context. While seeking fairness and parity, she said there had been a “historical disparity” that’s resulted in much higher pay for judges.

“In an ideal world we want everyone — public servants — to get greater salary increases,” she said. “I think public servants get the short end of the stick most of the time.”

At the same time, Wong said the commission operates within budget constraints. The day before, the state Council on Revenues forecast a slowing economy and less revenue.

The Legislature has many demands on funding, including paying down unfunded pension and benefit liabilities for state and county workers. And all 14 public sector collective bargaining units are up for contract negotiations this year.

Still, some commission members, led by Mike Irish, the chairman, were persuaded by Recktenwald’s argument that the salary recommendations for judges would “move them down the chain.”

Part of the confusion stemmed from using dollar figures rather than percentages to calculate the judiciary raises, something that Recktenwald said had not been the case when the commission met in 2013. The salary increases for the Legislature and executive branch were done using percentages.

Commissioners and the staff were literally calculating the numbers at the conference room table on the 14th floor of the Leiopapa A. Kamehameha Building downtown.

“And I couldn’t understand why it didn’t feel right,” Irish said. “It just seemed very unfair that we are picking one branch because they are making something,” he said, referring to the judiciary’s higher salaries.

Ultimately, Irish said commissioners would “agree to disagree.”

Salary Commission Chair Mike Irish
Mike Irish, chairman of the salary commission, supported bigger raises for judges. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The salary commission’s recommendations now go to Gov. David Ige and the Legislature, who by state law can only vote down the entire package.

The commission was created by the Legislature in 2006 and began its work during the 2007 session. It makes recommendations every six years.

Asked if he was disappointed in the final salary figures for his branch of government, Recktenwald said the judiciary was “grateful for the work of the commission,” but still concerned about how the salaries will impact the courts.

“Bottom line is we’re all grateful to be working as judges, we are grateful for the opportunity to serve the people of Hawaii and we are going to go back and do that every single day,” he said.

Hawaii Commission On Salaries Recommendations, March 13, 2019:

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