Politics & Government

Chief justice: Court workers need raises now, and we need $20 million to do it

Kansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Lawton Nuss, second from left, and Justices Marla Luckert, second from right, and Carol Beier listen Monday to Sedgwick County District Court Chief Judge James Fleetwood discuss court workers’ low pay. (April 24, 2017)
Kansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Lawton Nuss, second from left, and Justices Marla Luckert, second from right, and Carol Beier listen Monday to Sedgwick County District Court Chief Judge James Fleetwood discuss court workers’ low pay. (April 24, 2017) The Wichita Eagle

Salaries that have seen little to no increases over the past nine years have prompted leaders of the Kansas Judicial Branch to ask lawmakers to find $20 million in the budget to fund pay raises for the state’s court staff.

Wages for court-related job classifications are below market in all categories, with employees – including judges – making 4.6 percent to 22.2 percent less than their counterparts in other states and the District of Columbia, according to a study from the National Center for State Courts commissioned by the Kansas Judicial Branch.

Overall, Kansas ranks next to last on a list of best-paying states for court jobs before a cost-of-living adjustment. And it fares only slightly better with the adjustment included: 45th out of 50, the study found.

For many working in Kansas’ courthouses and in court-related jobs, that means tight personal budgets, meager retirement savings and second jobs, Kansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Lawton Nuss said.

“It’s way past time for this to happen,” he said, referring to increased wages.

The state’s trial court judges last received a pay raise in fiscal 2009. Other employees got a 2 percent cost-of-living raise two years ago – most of which was eaten up by health insurance and retirement fund costs, he said.

Nuss said the judicial branch is aware of the state’s already stressed financial situation. But, he said, “We can’t just sit back and wait forever.”

The study was commissioned last year by the Kansas Judicial Branch with a grant from the State Justice Institute. Nuss and Kansas Supreme Court Justices Carol Beier and Marla Luckert told The Eagle on Monday they hope it will persuade legislators to bump up pay for district court judges to an average of what judges make in states that neighbor Kansas.

For those other employees, they’re asking pay to be increased to market level. The judiciary is also asking to fill 20 vacancies and create positions for eight judges and accompanying staff.

Rep. John Whitmer, R-Wichita, said both houses of the Legislature have agreed to raises for nonjudicial court employees, to be funded through increases in court fees.

Differences in the two bills are to be worked out in a House-Senate conference committee, he said.

However, he doesn’t support nor expect the Legislature to approve raises for judges, because the state doesn’t have the money and there are more pressing concerns than raises for officials already making more than $100,000 a year, he said.

District judges are generally making about $125,000, and Supreme Court justices make about $140,000, according to KanView, the state’s spending database.

“I’m thinking we need to look at those on the low end of the pay scale,” Whitmer said, citing court clerks, probation officers and others who are struggling with low wages.

The total cost of the raise package proposed by the justices would be about $20 million and would be an ongoing annual expenditure.

“We want Kansans and legislators among them to ask themselves: ‘Is this all the value that we place on justice in Kansas?’ ” Nuss said.

The National Center for State Courts study and information collected by the Kansas Judicial Branch also found that:

▪ Around half of court employees are underpaid by 18 percent.

▪ About 25 percent of employee positions have a starting wage under the federal poverty level for a family of four.

▪ 32 percent of Kansas judicial branch workers have second jobs; across the state, 8.2 percent of people work more than one job, while nationwide, 5 percent do.

▪ About 25 percent of the state’s magistrate judges are looking for other jobs, mainly due to pay, which is 22 percent below market value.

▪ Employees are leaving positions to accept higher-paying jobs in other government departments or private industries.

▪ Uncompetitive wages limit the pool of qualified applicants for open positions.

▪ Open jobs sometime mean delays and continuances, especially in civil cases.

The judiciary receives less than 1 percent of the state’s $15.5 billion budget right now, according to a fact sheet from the Kansas Judicial Branch about the requested pay increases. About 95 percent of the amount goes toward salaries.

Kansas has approximately 250 judges and justices and around 1,600 other court-related employees, including clerks, judicial assistants and probation officers.

The effects of stagnant court staff pay can be seen in and around Wichita, said James Fleetwood, chief judge for Sedgwick County District Court. He also spoke to The Eagle on Monday.

One employee and her children eat at the Lord’s Diner – which offers a free hot meal once daily – several times a week so she can buy gasoline to get to work, he said.

Another, a mother of two who has worked for the state for 18 years, eats only twice a day so her kids have enough on their plates.

The lack of raises has left another worker with a paycheck that is $110 less now than it was seven years ago.

When there’s continued low pay like this, “you get to that emotional fatigue where it affects people,” Fleetwood said.

Amy Renee Leiker: 316-268-6644, @amyreneeleiker