What is the cost of justice?
Not the price of a by-the-hour defense attorney. But the budget necessary to keep a court system humming along efficiently with fair compensation for the clerks, probation officers, paralegals, judges and other staff.
It’s not what Kansas pays.
The state ranks a deplorable 50th out of all states and the District of Columbia for district judges’ compensation. The state ranks a still abysmal 45th overall when the cost of living is considered.
More than a quarter of the judicial positions in Kansas have starting salaries that are below the federal poverty level for a family of four, according to a study by the National Center for State Courts.
One predictable result is a 25 percent turnover rate for entry-level positions. And nearly one-third of Kansas judicial workers take second jobs to make ends meet.
The judges in the state have long known that their staffs were underpaid. They just didn’t realize how far Kansas had fallen behind until the 2016 study was undertaken through a State Justice Institute grant.
Kansas judges haven’t gotten a pay raise in nine years. The last bump in salary for judiciary employees approved by the Legislature was a 2.5 percent increase in 2008. Not surprisingly, morale has declined
The public may soon see the consequences of an underfunded judiciary.
Kansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Lawton R. Nuss was frank in his assessment: “If things continue, I have serious concerns with our ability to administer justice as Kansans have come to expect and as they deserve.”
Nuss also acknowledged that the situation is so critical that it’s becoming difficult to recruit pools of viable candidates for a variety of positions, including that of judge. Paralegals are paid more and have better benefits in private practice. The same can be said of top-flight attorneys who otherwise might be interested in serving on the bench.
The judiciary didn’t even bother to request any increases in salaries from the Legislature during several budgeting sessions, knowing that revenues were sagging. Meantime, the court system has increased efficiency in recent years with advances in electronic filing, videoconferencing and a website redesign, among other changes.
Many who choose to work within the state’s courts do so understanding that they will earn less than they might in the private sector. But the situation has reached outlandish disproportion.
The Legislature needs to take action to pay judicial employees a fair wage and move Kansas out of the back of the pack in state rankings.
Political reluctance to increase wages might well have its roots in petty paybacks. Many Kansas lawmakers were angered by the Kansas Supreme Court’s ruling on school finance.
That’s no reason to stymie salary increases. Such shenanigans are only harming Kansans.
Citizens and diligent employees within the judiciary deserve better.