Increasingly, the court community is coming to realize that relying on fines and fees is not good for the system of justice – and as illustrated by the situation in Ferguson Missouri, can even be destructive.
This is further illustrated in South Carolina, where the Chief Justice “asked legislators . . . to reduce the courts’ dependence on fines and increase judges’ salaries.”
“I remain deeply concerned by the heavy dependences on fines and fees” to pay for court operations, Chief Justice Costa Pleicones said during his first and only State of the Judiciary address to the Legislature.
Pleicones was sworn in as chief justice last month, becoming the high court’s first new leader since 2000. But he turns 72 next week and therefore must retire at year’s end.
He told legislators he realizes they aren’t going to overhaul court funding anytime soon. “But I suggest you begin the dialogue,” he said. The court system rests on an “unstable method of funding.”
Last year, fines and fees collected by the courts totaled $96 million, of which the judicial branch received $14.5 million, Pleicones said. The Legislature provided the courts an additional $50 million through state taxes.
Pleicones also asked the Legislature for $5.5 million to fund a 20 percent salary increase for more than 100 judges. Current salaries risk discouraging the state’s most qualified lawyers from seeking a judicial seat, he said.
“The evidence is irrefutable that time for a readjustment is merited and long overdue,” he said. “Think of it as deferred maintenance.”
By law, judges’ salaries are downward adjustments of the chief justice’s salary. Pleicones’ salary is $151,300, and associate justices on the state Supreme Court make $144,100.
Pleicones said the chief justice should earn $199,000, according to recommendations of an inflation-adjusted study of judicial salaries. But the judicial branch is instead seeking a $181,000 salary for his job, which would raise associate justices’ salaries to $173,000 and circuit judges’ salaries to $166,000, he said after his speech.
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