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Officials to study judicial pensions

Legislators hope by collaborating with the courts and the state retirement system they can adjust judicial pension formulas to attract more “seasoned” lawyers to the bench.

Senators from both parties spoke as one last month to lament financial disincentives that keep many experienced private practice lawyers from applying for judgeships.

“It is a big issue,” said Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Mechanicsville. “We will continue to be forced to rely on individuals who have limited practice experience to go on the bench because they are the only people who can financially afford to do it,” he told fellow senators on Jan. 28.

McDougle put in Senate Bill 606 that would have increased the retirement multiplier from 1.00% to 1.70% for new judges. The multiplier applies to years of service for calculating the vesting date for retirement.

But amid uncertainty about the best path through the maze of numbers provided by the Virginia Retirement System, McDougle had the bill carried over to next year to allow the Supreme Court, the Judicial Council and the VRS to study the figures.

“I want the concept to have a full vetting, rather than just jam through the version I came up with,” McDougle said Feb. 5.

The Supreme Court is supportive of reform.

“The court supports any reasonable bill that will improve judicial retirement benefits and attract highly qualified attorneys to the bench,” said a spokesperson for the Supreme Court on Jan. 30.

Lawmakers lamented that the most viable candidates for many open judgeships are commonwealth’s attorneys, public defenders and legislators themselves. All are already in the state retirement system, building up years of service.

Other than those candidates, “the only people who will vest in the system are people who become judges in their 30s, when they’re clearly not ready to be judges,” said Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Warm Springs.

“A lot of people think we’ve been putting people on the bench too soon, too early, and they get burned out,” said Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke. “I’m glad to see we’re looking into this issue.”