Local Politics

Bill would give judges, DAs a recruiting tool: money

Legislation pending in the General Assembly would raise pay for officials from the chief justice to public defenders from the bottom of the national range, a change backers hope would help hire and retain talented employees.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — A bill making its way through the legislature would fix what judges and prosecutors say is a huge problem in recruiting and keeping top-quality people – the lowest court-system salaries in the nation and wages far below private-sector pay.

“The median law school graduate out of Carolina is making $100,000 a year. And the median out of Duke is making $110,000 a year. The district attorneys are able to offer around $39,000 a year to be an assistant district attorney,” said Joe Buckner, chief district court judge in Orange and Chatham counties.

The bill in the General Assembly is designed to bring all of North Carolina's judicial salaries in line with other states, starting at the top.

“It would not, by any stretch of the imagination, make them extraordinarily highly paid individuals,” state Rep. Dan Blue, D-Wake, said. It would, however, help courts compete for the best and the brightest legal talent.

“When we get decent salary structures, and we've got logical salary structures, you're able to better attract people like that. But more importantly, you're better able to retain them once you get them into the system,” Blue added.

In an interview with “NC Wanted” in January, Orange County District Attorney Jim Woodall talked about the disruption facing his staff while they were in the middle of a major case.

“I lost one prosecutor to a job in the private sector paying her almost twice what I could pay her. I lost one prosecutor to the U.S. Attorney's Office, paying more with better benefits than I can provide,” Woodall said.

In the state House, Blue is sponsoring the bill. It’s current version, according to the legislative online records, would set a higher salary for the Supreme Court chief justice at $150,000 and a new pay scale for everyone else based on a percentage of that number. District attorneys would be paid $131,991.

In the Senate, Sen. Daniel G. Clodfelter, D-Mecklenberg, is sponsoring a matching bill.

The bills are in the two chambers’ Appropriations Committees. If the new salary structure passes, Blue said, it would take affect in the 2009-10 fiscal year.