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SC Judicial Pay Under The Microscope

Questionable retirement benefit clouds debate over judicial salaries …

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With all the legal cases this news outlet is involved in (here, here and here), we should probably think twice before questioning pay raises for members of the judicial branch of South Carolina state government.

Luckily for us, we have actually opined in support of pay raises for judges in the past …

“We have no problem with giving raises to judges and court officials,” we wrote back in 2015, prior to the current barrage of litigiousness descending upon us.  “After all, this is one of the few core functions government ought to perform – and we have consistently called on core functions to be funded at appropriate levels.  Cops, clerks of court, judges, emergency responders, prison guards, etc. – these are the people we should be paying.”

Indeed …

Also as we noted at the time, judges in the Palmetto State have been historically underpaid compared to their peers in other states – although in fairness it is considerably cheaper to live in South Carolina than it is to live in other states.

Having said that, there are some concerning details in a story published this week by reporter Rick Brundrett of The (Columbia, S.C.) Nerve.

According to Brundrett, “a little-known state law allows eligible judges in South Carolina to receive generous retirement pay for as much as a dozen years at the same time they’re collecting their regular six-figure salaries.”

Wait … what? 

It is apparently called “retire-in-place” and allows judges to draw 90 percent of their regular salaries in retirement benefits before they actually retire.

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At least two S.C. supreme court justices – John Kittredge and Kaye Hearn – are currently drawing this benefit, with Kittredge telling The Nerve “he separately receives about $11,000 a month in gross retirement pay – which works out to be approximately $132,000 yearly” on top of his annual salary of $148,000 (not counting benefits).

Hearn refused to provide details of her “retire-in-place” benefits, while S.C. chief justice Donald Beatty and newly elected justice George James declined to say whether they were receiving the benefit.

Justice John Few told the outlet he is not drawing any “retire-in-place” money.

The revelation of these supplemental salaries comes amid an ongoing debate over judicial branch compensation.  Beatty is currently pushing for a 33 percent pay hike for judges in fiscal year 2019-2020 budget.  If lawmakers agree to increase judicial salaries, it would also raise the “retire-in-place” payouts received by judges.

Under Beatty’s proposal, his salary would increase from $156,234 to $208,000 beginning on July 1 – meaning he would be paid the same amount of money as a U.S. district court judge.   Meanwhile, associate supreme court justices would see their salaries rise from $148,794 to 198,095, with salaries for appeals court judges climbing from $145,074 to $193,143, circuit court judges climbing from $141,354 to $188,190 and family court judges climbing from $137,633 to $183,238.

Again, we have no problem with these raises … for all of the same reasons we articulated more than three years ago.

Having said that, we believe judicial pay raises should be accompanied by long-overdue reform in way judges are chosen in South Carolina.  The current method – in which state lawmakers choose a slate of candidates and then vote on them – is clearly a cesspool, as this outlet has documented on multiple occasions in recent years.

Beyond that, we believe all state employees (including judges) should receive their salaries and retirement pay consecutively, not concurrently.  There is far too much double-dipping right now, which is one reason the state’s abysmally managed pension fund recently received a massive, ongoing taxpayer-funded bailout – an annual $826 million tax hike which lawmakers rammed through absent any reform of that badly broken system.

Obviously judges represent a tiny sliver of the financial obligations of this fund – and as noted, they perform a core function of government – but we believe the same rules should apply to all employees and retirees.  And that one of those rules should be retirement benefits are doled out only when an employee retires.

Again, beyond addressing the obvious eligibility and management problems related to the retirement fund, they key to solving the state’s spending and pension problems is to address the overall size of state government.

Which is why we are so adamant that government should do only a few things, and do them with maximum efficiency, accountability and transparency …

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