Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Randolph used a 2012 law to quietly award pay raises to himself and the state's judges earlier this year. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Supreme Court Justice Michael Randolph used a little-known provision in a 2012 law to quietly — and without legislative approval — award pay raises to himself and all of the state’s judges earlier this year.

Randolph wrote a letter last December informing state Personnel Board Executive Director Kelly Hardwick that he was authorizing a $15,000 pay raise for himself to bring his salary to $174,000 annually and award similar salary increases for other members of the state’s judiciary. That included salary adjustments for the state’s nine Supreme Court justices, 10 Court of Appeals judges, 57 circuit judges and 52 chancellors. The pay raises were based on a Personnel Board recommendation of adequate salaries for judges.

“As chief justice, in my capacity as chief administrative officer of all courts in the state, the salaries for judges and justices shall be as follows,” he wrote before outlining the pay raises that went into effect on Jan. 1.

While most every other elected official in Mississippi has their salaries set by the Legislature — traditionally the only governmental body with the power to appropriate money — a provision in a 2012 law gives the Supreme Court chief justice the power to raise salaries of the judiciary without legislative approval.

“The Court recently implemented salary adjustments utilizing the authority granted by the Legislature in the Mississippi Code,” Beverly Kraft, a spokesperson for the Court, confirmed to Mississippi Today.

The plan approved by Randolph, which he based on a study conducted by the Personnel Board, increases the salaries:

  • For Supreme Court associate justices from $152,250 to $166,500 per year.
  • For Court of Appeals associate justices from $144,827 to $158,500.
  • For chancery and circuit judges from $136,000 to $149,000.

In the 2012 session, a much-discussed bill providing pay raises for judges also contained the little-discussed provision that apparently gives the Supreme Court chief justice, based on a recommendation from the state Personnel Board, the authority to increase the salaries.

The 2012 legislation provided incremental pay raises for judges, district attorneys and other court staff through 2016. Then, starting after 2019, the new law called for the Supreme Court justices and other judges to receive an automatic pay raise if funds are available, based on a determination of “an adequate level of compensation” as determined by the state Personnel Board. That board regularly conducts studies to determine the salary levels for state employees based on various factors, such as pay for similar positions in the private sector and in neighboring states.

Before the 2012 law, the Personnel Board had not played a role in the pay for most elected officials. That was left up to the Legislature, which, based on multiple past court rulings, has the sole authority to appropriate funds.

Legislative leaders have not been willing to discuss the pay raises the judges received. However, various members told Mississippi Today that Randolph did communicate with legislative leaders before enacting the pay raise, and there was some level of disagreement about whether he should enact a pay raise on his own without legislative approval.

In the 2020 session, House Appropriations Chair John Read, R-Gautier, authored legislation that would have provided a judicial pay raise but would have removed the 2012 language that allowed the judges to set their own salary based on the Personnel Board report. The legislation passed the House, but died in the Senate Appropriations Committee, chaired by Sen. Briggs Hopson, R-Vicksburg.

Hopson, a prominent attorney and recent past president of the Mississippi Bar, did not offer comment about the judicial pay raises when contacted by Mississippi Today. Read, a pharmacist, also did not offer comment.

In September 2020, less than six months after the 2020 legislation died, Randolph contacted the Personnel Board inquiring about its salary recommendation report for the judiciary. That recommendation was for about $2 million starting in January 2021 — a pay increase greater than what was proposed in the 2020 House bill.

In addition to providing the power to raise judiciary salaries, the 2012 legislation, authored by then-House Judiciary A Chair Mark Baker, R-Brandon, also increased the fees on various court filings — such as the fee to file a civil lawsuit or on the levies in criminal proceedings — to help pay for the salary increase. Some argued at the time the increase on the various court filings was equivalent to a tax increase for those who use the courts. But then-Chief Justice William Waller Jr., who advocated for the 2012 legislation, said judges at the time desperately needed a pay increase and he was trying to be responsible by providing a method to pay for it.

Waller could not be reached to comment on whether it was his intent to remove from the Legislature the authority to set the judicial salaries.

The money from the increase in fees goes into the Judicial System Operation Fund, which is supposed to be used in part for judicial salaries. The 2012 legislation says the salaries “shall be fixed” at the level recommended by the Personnel Board “to the extent that sufficient funds are available.”

Some legislators question whether the Supreme Court has enough money in the Judicial System Operation Fund to pay for the raise without receiving a deficit appropriation during the session. But in a letter to legislative leaders, Personnel Board Director Hardwick said the Court has enough money in a special court fund to pay for the pay raises.

Hardwick informed House Speaker Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann of Randolph’s plan to increase the salaries in a January letter. He praised the 2012 legislation for taking “steps that will ensure that Mississippi continues to recruit and retain the best and the brightest for the bench. Allowing the judiciary this flexibility will enable Mississippi to close the pay gap with neighboring states.”

Based on data compiled by the National Center for State Courts, with the salary increases Mississippi judges still would trail those in neighboring states in terms of pay with the exception of associate Supreme Court justices and trial judges in Alabama.

The pay in Mississippi for state employees and teachers also trails that paid in the four contiguous states. And in general, the pay for judges in Mississippi and the four surrounding states is more competitive nationally than for teachers and state employees.

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Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.