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Salary is a concern for Florida Supreme Court justices

TALLAHASSEE — The job pays $161,000 a year, comes with black robes and is considered the highest honor for a Florida lawyer.

But as Gov. Charlie Crist goes looking for four new Florida Supreme Court justices over roughly the next 18 months, he may find slim pickings.

The departures of Justices Raoul G. Cantero III and Kenneth Bell, the newest and youngest members of the seven-member bench, highlight the drawbacks of the prestigious job, particularly for younger candidates with growing families.

Justices, who have often spent their careers in a single city, must move to Tallahassee. Once there, they'll likely earn far less than they could in the private sector. And unlike other high-level state employees, they are required to pay health care premiums.

Crist will have the opportunity to reshape the high court, with four appointments in his first term. Two more justices, Harry Lee Anstead and Charles T. Wells, hit the mandatory retirement age by next year.

Some of Crist's top advisers are warning the search could be challenging. For each slot, Crist will receive three to six recommendations from the Judicial Nominating Commission.

"The risk that you run, if you don't make changes, is that you will wind up with applicants who are mediocre lawyers or multi-millionaires," said Chris Kise, a former counselor to the governor now in private practice, whose name has surfaced as a potential contender.

Cantero said the public service of the job has been highly fulfilling, but acknowledged he is having trouble talking up the job.

"I've talked to a lot of people who are unwilling to apply because it's too much of a sacrifice on their families," said Cantero, 47, who is stepping down, because his family wants to be closer to relatives in Miami.

Judicial pay, which is set by the Florida Legislature, is by no means a Florida-only problem. In pushing for pay hikes for federal judges, Chief Justice John Roberts declared judicial pay a "constitutional crisis" in 2007.

This year, Georgia Supreme Court justices, who earn $167,209, nearly got a 5 percent pay hike, but their governor vetoed the measure. The Texas Legislature recently bumped salaries of justices on the state Supreme Court to $150,000, up from $115,000.

In Florida, justices' last pay hike was the same cost-of-living increase all employees got in 2006. Justices also pay roughly a third of the cost of their health insurance premiums, like most lower-level state employees, while some of the high court's top staff, like the clerk, receive essentially free health insurance, paid for by the state. So do the governor and other high-level managers such as the chief of staff.

This year, Florida lawmakers for the first time set aside $200,000 for justices' use to travel to their hometowns. The money is part of the budget waiting for Crist's approval. However, in a tight budget year no pay increase is included.

As a comparison, federal court district judges earn $169,300, or 5 percent more than state Supreme Court justices. And federal judges have the opportunity to draw their full salary upon retirement, if their age and years of service equal 80.

Some first-year law graduates who get jobs at major law firms can pull six-figure salaries, said Kise and George LeMieux, the governor's former chief of staff. A salary study by the Florida Bar in 2006 showed that the median salary for a law partner in Florida was $145,000; for a recent law school graduate, $55,000.

"To try to get a lawyer to take a pay cut to be a judge is very challenging," said LeMieux, whose law partner Robert Hackleman is on the Judicial Nominating Commission.

Family concerns

Both Cantero and Bell have told friends that they've faced major challenges in balancing their family and work lives under the current compensation plan.

In April, Cantero announced his resignation, effective Sept. 6. He said that part of the problem is that the cost of traveling between South Florida from Tallahassee has grown for his family of five. He also had to pay to move his family to Tallahassee out of his own pocket.

Cantero said on Friday that he had already realized he was going to rethink a return to private practice as his children grew to be college-aged. Then, when his daughter got sick and had a benign tumor removed, the distance between Tallahassee and a large, tight-knit family in Miami made his family homesick.

"The whole ordeal of going through that alone in Tallahassee hit home that we needed to be where our family was," Cantero said.

Last month, Bell announced his resignation, effective Oct. 1. He moved his family to Tallahassee for about a year, then they moved back to Pensacola. His family lives there now, and Bell, 52, has been commuting, confirmed Supreme Court spokesman Craig Waters.

To save money, Bell has lately been staying at the homes of friends and family members in Tallahassee while he is needed on the job, Waters said.

Salary is a concern for Florida Supreme Court justices 06/02/08 [Last modified: Friday, June 6, 2008 7:21pm]

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