COLUMBIA — In what has become something of a regular annual occurrence, the chief justice of South Carolina's Supreme Court asked lawmakers Wednesday to raise salaries for the state's judges and provide more stable funding for the judicial branch in general.
Chief Justice Don Beatty told a joint session of the House and Senate in his second annual State of the Judiciary address that ongoing funding issues remain pressing.
"Usually when we come before you, all we talk about is money," Beatty said in a 45-minute speech. "And I'll be frank with you: We can't escape it this time, either."
As part of Beatty's funding requests, he asked lawmakers to end the judicial branch's dependence on fines and fees, a revenue source that has consistently declined for the past decade. Several other state agencies, including the police training academy, have asked for the same treatment.
The judicial branch's funding needs can be divided into three top priorities, Beatty said: infrastructure, technology and talent.
On infrastructure, Beatty said the lack of adequate office space has become so severe that some judicial employees have been forced to work in converted hallways and closets.
On technology, 25 more courtrooms need to upgrade to digital court reporting systems, he said.
The talent issue covers increasing judicial salaries so that top-flight lawyers don't need to take as steep of a pay cut in order to join the bench, he said. It has long been a top priority, long before Beatty, a former lawmaker, took over the state's leading judicial post.
"We need to be able to recruit and retain the most qualified and experienced judicial candidates," Beatty said, repeating the line twice for emphasis. "We will succeed only if we have sustainable funding."
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Murrell Smith, who oversees the state budget process in that chamber, said he agrees with Beatty about the importance of judicial pay and has proposed raising his salary to the same level as a federal district court judge in South Carolina. Overall, the committee has proposed an $11 million allotment for judicial pay increases.
Trends indicate judicial pay hasn’t substantially increased since 1995 as periodic cost-of-living increases have largely been swallowed by higher costs for insurance and retirement benefits.
Beatty’s current salary is $156,200, and associate justices on the state Supreme Court make about $149,000. Circuit judges make $141,300, while family court judges make $137,600.
Salaries for other judges in South Carolina, including the rest of the Supreme Court, is determined based on the chief justice's pay.
"We've had some outstanding judicial candidates over the years, but I have also observed that they are younger and younger, and the more experienced seasoned lawyers are becoming less available or have less interest," said Smith, R-Sumter. "We have to do something to improve the pool of applicants."
State Sen. Gerald Malloy, a Hartsville Democrat who has long pushed for judicial pay raises, said he believes the move is long overdue — but he is hopeful there will be room in the budget this year to remedy the issue, "if we have the political will."
As just the second African-American chief justice in the history of South Carolina's top court, Beatty also noted the timing of his address fell at the conclusion of Black History Month in February and shortly before the beginning of Women's History Month in March.
"Recognizing these events is important as we strive for a more diverse judiciary," Beatty said.