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State board recommends 17% pay increase for Oklahoma judges

Members of the Board on Judicial Compensation meet at the Oklahoma Judicial Center in Oklahoma City on Tuesday.
Carmen Forman
Oklahoma Voice
Members of the Board on Judicial Compensation meet at the Oklahoma Judicial Center in Oklahoma City on Tuesday.

Oklahoma judges could receive a 17% pay hike next year.

The Oklahoma Board on Judicial Compensation on Tuesday voted 5-0 to recommend the pay hike for all state judges at an estimated $8.5 million cost to the state.

The Oklahoma Legislature can adopt, reject or modify the recommendation next year.

The proposed pay hike would increase the annual salary for district judges from $156,732 to about $183,000.

Pay for the Oklahoma Supreme Court’s chief justice, the state’s highest-paid judge, would jump from $185,245 to about $216,000.

The Oklahoma Judges Association recommended the board, which meets every two years, increase judicial pay by $16.78% to bring local judge salaries up to the average in the seven-state region. The board rounded the salary increase up, although some members expressed concerns about the optics of such a pay increase.

Such large increases are rare.

In 2005, the board recommended a 19% pay raise for the chief justice of the Supreme Court and roughly 15% pay hikes for all other judges, said board chairman David Pitts, a Stillwater banker. He did not vote on the pay raise, saying a 17% increase would be higher than salary hikes for other public sector employees.

“I do have a hard time with 17%,” he said. “Not because they don’t deserve it.”

Before the vote, members of the judges association, sitting judges and local attorneys said the pay raises were crucial for Oklahoma to be able to attract the best and brightest minds to the bench. They also pointed out that lawyers, who apply for most judgeships, can earn significantly more in private practice.

Supreme Court Chief Justice M. John Kane IV said six or fewer people applied to three recent judicial vacancies.

“I would hope that in our busiest districts that we would have a branch of government that would attract more than five or six people that would be interested in becoming a judge,” he said.

In 2021, the board recommended a 7.67% pay hike for judges, which was approved by state lawmakers. That pay hike helped put Oklahoma judge pay on par with some neighboring states until many other states in the region passed their own raises.

Board member Sean Ziese, a small business owner, said he’s struggled to retain employees since the start of the COVID pandemic. As a result, he’s hiked employee pay by 19%.

Noting that he’s had to go into courtrooms before, Ziese said Oklahoma needs good judges on the bench.

“If we have to go back and face a judge again, I’ll make sure we get the best that we can,” he said. “I want my employee or my neighbor to have the same treatment.”

Oklahoma currently ranks 45th in the nation for judicial pay, according to the Oklahoma Judges Association.

If approved, the pay raises would take effect in July 2024.

This story was originally published by Oklahoma Voice, part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oklahoma Voice maintains editorial independence.

Carmen covers state government, politics and health care for Oklahoma Voice. A Norman native, she previously worked in Arizona and Virginia before she began reporting on the Oklahoma Capitol.
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