Salaries for the state’s judges would climb by $30,000 during the next three years under a measure that won legislative approval this week with little fanfare.
Supporters said the increase, which the state Senate approved Thursday following earlier backing by the House, takes aim at longstanding concerns that the salaries of Massachusetts judges trail their counterparts in other states. But critics described the raises as excessive, given tax increases that political leaders are proposing.
Under the plan, the yearly salaries of trial court judges will jump from $130,000 to $160,000, a 23 percent boost. The raises — which would affect nearly 400 trial and appellate court judges, along with clerks — would cost an estimated $22 million over three years.
Legislators said the increase would mark the first raise judges have received in years and would help the court system stay competitive with the private sector.
“It is critical that we have a strong and independent judiciary that attracts the best and the brightest,” said Senator Brian A. Joyce, the Milton Democrat who sponsored the measure.
Joyce said Massachusetts judges had received one pay raise in the past 15 years and that surveys have placed their salaries near the bottom nationally when adjusted for cost of living.
“At some point, we have to fairly compensate our judges,” he said.
But critics said the magnitude of the increase, particularly as state leaders are calling for substantially higher taxes, was worrisome.
“That’s a pretty significant jump, and it doesn’t seem wise,” said Paul Craney, who directs the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, a conservative-leaning advocacy group. “We’re essentially asking people to pay more in taxes so that public employees can get a pay raise.”
“We’re going on a spending spree,” he added. “And this is a perfect example.”
The salary increase is included in the budget that will be submitted to Governor Deval Patrick, whose office did not respond to requests for comment Friday.
The raise proposals were amendments to larger budget bills. The House amendment, filed during a budget debate that began in April, has drawn little notice.
Under both plans, judges would receive salary increases of $15,000 in the first year, $10,000 in the second, and $5,000 in the third. In the Senate version, the raises would begin to go into effect next year.
Along with the judges, more than 500 clerks, registers, and assistant clerks would receive raises of varying amounts. Under law, they must receive increases whenever judges do, legislative and court officials said.
While salaries of judges and clerks are set by the Legislature, unionized court employees receive raises through the collective bargaining process, officials said.
Joyce said the raises would not crowd out other spending priorities for the court system, which has scaled back its staff since the recession in the face of budget pressures. The court system as a whole is slated to receive a budget increase, he said.
Supporters said the pay raises are long overdue, citing a 2012 survey from the National Center for State Courts that ranked salaries for Massachusetts trial court judges as the nation’s fifth lowest, trailing only Hawaii, Maine, Vermont, and New York.
The raises would lift Massachusetts into the middle of the pack, said Harry Spence, the court administrator.
“Massachusetts had been increasingly falling behind,” he said.
Spence said higher salaries are needed to attract and retain top judges, who often can receive vastly higher compensation in the private sector.
“It’s crucially important,” he said.
Under the plan, the yearly salary of the chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court would climb to $181,000, while those of associate justices would rise to $175,000. The Chief Justice of the Appeals Court would make $170,000, and associate justices would earn $165,000.
In 2008, an advisory commission appointed by Patrick to study the issue recommended that salaries for trial judges be increased to $160,000, noting a widening disparity with the private sector.
“The salaries for private-
sector attorneys have drastically outpaced those of judges,” the report stated. “The largest law firms in Boston now pay first-year associates $160,000 and second-year associates $175,000, amounts far above the salaries of trial court judges.”
The panel concluded that the “highly politicized process” of setting judges salaries through the Legislature had resulted in an “erratic history of salary adjustments.”
The commission’s report noted that until the previous few years, most judges were recruited from private-sector positions, rather than prosecutors’ offices.
As salaries became less competitive, “the pool of qualified talent willing to consider judicial appointments has narrowed substantially.”
Court officials have lobbied for increases in the past, but since the recession have recognized that the state could not afford it.
But with the economy rebounding, the timing was right to address the issue, supporters said.
Spence said the salary increase will be funded separately from the court budget overall, which is slated to increase. That will help the court add staff after years of cutbacks, Spence said.Peter Schworm can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.