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A much bigger payday awaits Florida Supreme Court justices

After years of talks with the Legislature about how to make their salaries more competitive, justices of the Florida Supreme Court finally prevailed.

In the $88.7 billion budget that hit Gov. Rick Scott's desk Wednesday, justices salaries are being raised an eye-catching $42,000 a year, to $220,600 a year.

That's nearly twice the salary of the three elected Cabinet members, who are paid $128,972 a year. The governor's salary is $130,273 (Scott has not accepted a salary as governor). Circuit judges' salaries are $160,688 each year.

Last year's Legislature set the justices' pay at $162,220, but it was increased to $178,420 in a court-related conforming bill that took effect last Oct. 1.

Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, has long advocated raising the pay of justices. House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, developed a rapport this session on a range of court-related issues with Chief Justice Jorge Labarga.

The central argument for paying justices a lot more is to develop a broader pool of applicants for appointments. Three of the seven justices — Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince — are nearing retirement age and must leave the court next January.

A legal dispute has arisen over whether the termed-out Scott or his successor has the power to replace the three jurists.

The court itself may yet resolve that question.

Talented young lawyers can usually make much more money in private practice than what the state has been paying justices of the state's highest court.

The salary issue has been around for more than a decade, since Ken Bell and Raoul Cantero served on the court. Both men left the bench early in part because of the salary and their inability to live in the places they both considered home — Pensacola and Miami, respectively.

Separate language in the budget implementing bill (HB 5003) allows any of the justices who permanently lives outside of Tallahassee to  maintain an official headquarters in a hometown courthouse or "other appropriate facility."

The bill also allows justices to be reimbursed for travel expenses under certain conditions.

All of the salary adjustments take effect July 1. The budget did not include any across-the-board pay raises for rank-and-file state employees.

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