Thursday, June 30, 2016

McGraw v. State

Opinion handed down May 24, 2016

Holding the title of “Honorable,” “Justice,” or “Judge,” might enable one to believe that an elected judge is paid commensurate with the noble title.  In reality, however, this is not the case.  Members of the Supreme Court of Missouri, the highest court in the state, are only paid a fraction more than some first year associates at large law firms.[1]  However, in a decision handed down by the Supreme Court of Missouri in May 2016, the court matter-of-factly denied elected judges their extra retirement compensation as prescribed to them by means of the Missouri Constitution.[2]  Lacking any type of policy argument, the court struck down the plaintiff-judges’ claims because their arguments relied on an incorrect interpretation of an amendment to the Missouri Constitution.[3]

I.  Facts and Holding

Peggy Stevens McGraw and Samuel C. Jones both served as elected judges in the State of Missouri until McGraw’s retirement in October 2013 and Jones’s retirement in November 2014.[4]  In December 2014, Judges McGraw and Jones filed suit against the Missouri State Employee’s Retirement System (“MOSERS”) and the State of Missouri in the Cole County Circuit Court, alleging that the State erroneously implemented the 2010 compensation schedule adopted by the Missouri Citizens’ Commission on Compensation for Elected Officials pursuant to art. XIII, section 3 of the Missouri Constitution.[5]  Specifically, the plaintiffs argued that that they were entitled to additional retirement benefits as laid out by Missouri’s Citizen Compensation Commission.[6]  For the relevant period of July 1, 2012, to June 30, 2014,4 McGraw and Jones received compensation as calculated under the 2010 Report without regard to the additional compensation eventually ordered as a result of the Beer and Barker litigation.[7]  The plaintiffs therefore claimed that they were entitled to have their compensation recalculated using the results of the recent federal legislation.[8][BC1]   The trial court dismissed with prejudice all counts raised by the appellants, correctly concluding that their claims were based on an interpretation of art. XII, sec. 3 that was incorrect as a matter of law and the retirement benefits were properly calculated.[9] The Supreme Court affirmed the judgment.[10]

II.  Legal Background
Since 1996, Missouri has dictated that taxpayers control the rate that elected officials are paid.[11]  A special commission (“Commission”) made up of various members of the community was tasked with crafting the appropriate amount of compensation available to elected officials.[12]  According to the statute, the Commission was held in check by the Missouri General Assembly.[13]  Originally, if the general assembly adopted a concurrent resolution of disapproval by a majority vote before February 1 following the filing of the Commission’s report, then the report allocating compensation for elected officials could be rejected as a whole.[14]  Even if it was not wholly rejected, the general assembly could still modify the Commission’s report through the appropriation process.[15]  
The power of the general assembly became even more limited in 2002, when the Commission recommended that “the voters [] be given the opportunity to make changes to, or abolish, the Commission at the general election in August 2004.”[16]  As a result, the ability of the general assembly to reject the Commission’s report as a whole by February 1 now required a two-thirds majority vote, and the Commission’s report could no longer be modified through an appropriation process.[17]

III. Instant Decision

Retired Missouri Judges Peggy Stevens McGraw and Samuel C. Jones filed suit in the Cole County Circuit Court in Missouri, alleging the State erroneously implemented the 2010 compensation schedule adopted by the Missouri Citizens’ Commission on Compensation for Elected Officials pursuant to art. XIII, section 3 of the Missouri Constitution.[18]  They claimed that this error resulted in a lack of compensation for their services as elected officials, which also resulted in underpaid retirement benefits.[19]  The trial court dismissed with prejudice all counts raised by the appellants for failure to state a claim.[20]  The trial court found that their claims were based on an interpretation of art. XIII, § 3 that was incorrect as a matter of law and that retirement benefits were therefore properly calculated.[21]  Specifically, the court found that the retirement benefits are calculated using the salary received on the date of retirement, and because McGraw had retired before the Baker and Beer federal litigation was concluded, she could not state a claim based upon art. XIII, section 3 of the Missouri Constitution.[22]  Accordingly, the Supreme Court of Missouri affirmed the decision of the trial court.[23]

IV. Comment

At first glance, this case seems fairly straightforward – easily disposed of by means of simple civil procedure.  It also seems to hold firm to the United States’s unique strategy of checks and balances throughout the judiciary and legislative bodies.  In addition, this case demonstrates a lack of bias from the Supreme Court of Missouri– a cynic might easily lack faith in the court to create case law providing for higher compensation rates for state judges.  In this case, however, the court managed to resist the cynic’s urge and instead decided to follow what it presumed to be the black letter law – one easily governed by simple civil procedure and timing.  However, upon closer glance, this case seems to address future policy considerations for which Missouri may not be equipped.
Opponents of judicial pay raises are likely to cite to substantial deficit between the salaries of state legislators and state judges,[24] whereas proponents of judicial salary hikes fear that quality lawyers will be forced to pursue other careers in the legal field if judicial salaries continue to poorly reflect their time, effort, and legal knowledge.[25][BC2]   In addition, the weight of lawmakers’ authority is substantially diminished by the presence of the Commission, considering that the Commission can elect for pay raises without the legislature first setting aside funds for the pay raises.[26]
These policy issues did not seem to hinder the court in making its decision, however.  While this is probably adequate for the time being, the issue of judicial compensation may be on the forefront in the upcoming years due to the concerns voiced by both proponents and opponents of the Commission’s decisions
In conclusion, while the Supreme Court of Missouri straightforwardly came to the correct decision in this case, it should be mindful that its decision may need to incorporate policy [BC3] [DJ(4] [DJ(5] in the near future.  For instance, fewer lawsuits from former judges may need to be litigated if judges are paid commensurate with their abilities and the amount of time they work.  For now, however, it seems that there is a divide between lawmakers and the judiciary, and the Commission appointed to decide judiciary compensation might not be as much of a check on state governmental powers as originally thought.
Sheaffer Fennessey

[1] Mo. Judiciary, FY 2016 Budget Request: with Governor’s Recommendations 18 (2015),
[2] McGraw v. State, No. SC 95271, 2016 WL 2996872, at *1 (Mo. May 24, 2016) (en banc).
[3] Id.
[4] Id.
[5] Id. at *2.
[6] In its 2010 report, the Commission provides that beginning with fiscal year 2013, “[E]ach state judge’s salary shall be indexed to the commensurate judicial position in the federal system.” Mo. Citizens’ Comm’n on Comp. for Elected Officials, Appendix G: Schedule of Compensation G-40 (2010),
[7] McGraw, 2016 WL 2996872, at *2 (“In Beer v. United States, the court held that federal judges should be awarded back pay in accordance with the compensation mandated by the 1989 federal ethics reform act.”).
[8] Id.
[9] Id. at *1
[10] Id.
[11] Mo. Const. art. XIII, § 3.1 (noting the amendment exists to “ensure that the power to control the rate of compensation of elected officials . . . is retained and exercised by the tax paying citizens of the state”); McGraw, 2016 WL 2996872, at *1.
[12] McGraw, 2016 WL 2996872, at *1; Mo. Const. art. XIII, § 3.3.
[13] McGraw, 2016 WL 2996872, at *1.
[14] Id.
[15] Id.
[16] Id.
[17] Id.; Mo. Const. art. XIII, § 3.8.
[18] Mo. Const. art. XIII, § 3.
[19] McGraw, 2016 WL 2996872, at *1.
[20] Id.
[21] Id.
[22] Id. at *2.
[23] Id.
[24] Summer Ballentine, Missouri judges get raise despite lack of lawmaker approval, Wash. Times (Nov. 1, 2015),
[25]Missouri state government salary, Ballotpedia, (last visited June 14, 2016),.
[26]Ballentine, supra note 22.