The legal world has been chattering about big pay raises given to most staff — law clerks and administrative assistants — at the Arkansas Supreme Court.
The chatter arises for several reasons:
* The pay raises outstrip those given staff members at the Arkansas Court of Appeals, despite a state statute that seems to suggest there should be parity in pay of the staffs.
* Some justices’ employees got much bigger pay raises than others. The single most generous on a percentage basis was Justice Karen Baker, who’d complained about her own 11 percent pay raise earlier this year from the independent citizens commission that set state official pay under a new constitutional amendment. (It remains unclear precisely how raises are apportioned; the court spokesman can’t say, though others familiar with the process say it would be a decision made by a majority of the court.)
* Pay increases far exceeded those given other state employees, who got a 1 percent cost of living increase this year, their first COLA in several years.
Here’s a summary, with the full list on the jump:
* ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANTS: Each of the seven justices has one assistant. Their pay as of July 1 ranges from about $32,200 to $58,700, with years on the job ranging from 6 months to 36 years. Pay raises ranged from .7 percent to more than 19 percent for Justice Rhonda Wood’s assistant, whose service date began Jan. 2. Five got roughly 9 percent increases or more. Wood’s assistant now makes, with a $6,000 raise, almost $37,000. Wood took office herself Jan. 1.
* LAW CLERKS: Each justice has two clerks. Their pay, as of July 1, ranges from $53,109 to $83,741 (for a clerk with 25 years experience). Two clerks got raises in the range of 5 percent; six clerks drew boosts in the 9 percent range; one got an 11 percent boost though he’d been working for Rhonda Wood only six months; one got a 12 percent raise; three(drew in the range of 19 percent (two clerks for Robin Wynne and one for Courtney Goodson); one (working for Rhonda Wood), got a 23 percent raise, and one, working for Karen Baker, got a 36.8 percent raise of $18,600 with four years on the job.
By contrast, the 12 administrative assistants to Court of Appeals judges and the 24 clerks all got 1 percent raises, the same COLA given other state employees. The administrative assistants, with varying longevity, earn from roughly $31,600 to $51,100. Of the clerks, 19 of the 24 make in the $50,000 to $58,000 range where only two of the 14 Supreme Court clerks make less than $60,000. The other five make from about $66,000 to $79,800. Experience of those at the top ranges from 18 to 30 years.
State law says the following about pay of these staff members:
(f) (1) Law clerks for the Court of Appeals shall receive the same salaries as Supreme Court law clerks.
(2) All other employees of the Court of Appeals shall be of the same grade classification as Supreme Court employees performing the same duties, except that the original salaries may be in accordance with Step 2 of that grade as set out in § 21-5-209.
My efforts to date to get an explicit description of how staff salaries are set have been unsuccessful. Stacey Pectol, clerk of the Arkansas Supreme Court, compiled the pay before and after raises and years of service, but said she knew of no court memo, such as I had requested, that set out the rationale for variance in pay raises or whether anyone had addressed the statute on similarity of pay. The clerks and assistants are classified employees under the state pay plan, which allows variances for experience. The Supreme Court had some spare money to spend on raises in the budget appropriated by the legislature after consultation with the administrative office of the courts. The court fired its communications officer earlier this year for reasons that were never explained and turned dealing with the public over to Pectol, whose oversees the staff that handles court record keeping.
If anyone were to challenge any seeming disparity in the rates of pay, the Supreme Court would be the arbiter of the case.
After the independent citizens commission recommended an 11 percent pay raise for justices to $166,500 (and the court was already paid better than about half the states despite Arkansas’s low incomes) Justices Baker and Hart complained, particularly because they don’t get a $6,000 mileage allowance given Court of Appeals judges, who are elected from regions around the state, and who got a raise to $161,500. Hart talked of the court’s workload — lighter than the Court of Appeals if published opinions are a measure — and also told the commission the court tried to resolve cases speedily. High irony in that. Hart, according to sources, dug in and presented — along with Baker — a stumbling block to deciding the same-sex marriage case. The court, despite expediting the case, never reached a decision in eight months. It dismissed the case without a ruling after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled state bans unconstitutional. Baker, Hart, Woods and Goodson were believed to be in a majority that delayed the case.
The Supreme Court also takes several months off each year, a time when staff work is correspondingly light.
UPDATE: There WAS a memo on the pay plan, written by Justice Baker and approved by the court in what I’ve been told was a 5-2 vote, with Chief Justice Jim Hannah and Paul Danielson dissenting. It uses the money saved by the firing of the communications officer in the calculations. And it indicates Baker thinks the legislature will provide still more “modest additional funding for salaries.” The plan is driven by a disparity in payroll for Justices Baker, Rhonda Wood and Robin Wynne, due mostly to the fact that other justices employ clerks of much longer standing. The bulk of the $140,225 in salary adjustments comes from giving each of the seven justices $16,000 to spend as they choose, regardless of experience of employees. The memo anticipates other retirements or that other higher salaried employees will be replaced during the next two years, so it is unnecessary to hold back appropriated money in reserve. Baker argues that the plan is more “equitable.” She does not address the statute on pay parity for Supreme Court and Court of Appeals clerks or the result of huge pay raises for inexperienced staff. Absent the ability to talk to justices about this, it’s hard to fully analyze the changes. This much is not hard to analyze, however: The Baker-Goodson-Hart-Wood bloc — with acquiescence from Wynne — has taken over the Supreme Court operationally. And it would be only logical to predict that would wash over into jurisprudence, too.
The spreadsheet on new pay levels follows. You can also see it at this link. (I think I finally have link configured for public access, but a copy appears below, too, along with the key for where employees work.)
ARKANSAS SUPREME COURT PAY
ARKANSAS COURT OF APPEALS PAY
The chart shows which employee works for which justice, though the listing is out of date in one case. Tina Bowers Lee is a law clerk for Justice Paul Danielson. April Golden is no longer on the payroll.