Judge backs pay raise for county law clerks

HOLLIDAYSBURG — Law clerks who work with county court judges have traditionally started at lower salaries than beginning attorneys in the district attorney’s and public defender’s offices

But based on an argument President Judge Elizabeth Doyle offered Thursday to the county salary board, it may be time for Blair County to consider changing that tradition.

“(Law clerks) don’t have fewer qualifications than other attorneys,” Doyle said. “They need to be paid on par with other attorneys.”

While law clerks have traditionally been recent law school graduates, Doyle said her law clerks have included recent graduates as well as full-fledged attorneys.

And with her current law clerk about to resign, Doyle asked the salary board Thursday to consider an annual starting salary of at least $35,000 to match the starting pay of the county’s assistant prosecutors and assistant public defenders. In Blair County, law clerks have been hired at $30,000.

A law clerk’s primary job, Doyle said, is researching complex legal issues that help a judge render decisions affecting people’s lives and remain subject to appeal.

While assistant district attorneys and assistant public defenders focus on criminal law only, Doyle said a law clerk needs to be familiar with criminal law, civil law, orphan’s court matters and family law.

Doyle asked for the higher starting pay at the same meeting where the salary board reviewed increases for two experienced attorneys and delayed action until Nov. 29.

District Attorney Richard Consiglio has been asking the board to increase the salary of assistant prosecutor Nichole Smith, hired earlier this year at the starting pay of $35,000. Because of her decade of experience and her ability, Consiglio has requested Smith’s annual salary to be set at $55,400.

In a similar request, Chief Public Defender Russ Montgomery asked to increase assistant public defender John Siford’s salary, also to $55,400 annually. Siford, who has been practicing law for more than two decades, currently makes $46,107 annually, county records indicate.

Commissioner Terry Tomassetti, who is on record in support of higher pay for county attorneys as a way to address ongoing turnover, seconded Doyle’s motion to set a starting salary for law clerks at $35,000. But only Tomassetti and Doyle voted in favor of the motion.

Fellow commissioners Bruce Erb and Ted Beam Jr., along with county Controller A.C. Stickel, who also sit on the salary board, voted no on Doyle’s request.

Stickel said the 2019 proposed budget doesn’t include money for higher pay.

“I’d like to see what the practice is in other counties,” Erb said.

In budget workshops to craft the proposed 2019 budget, Tomassetti has asked Erb and Beam to consider paying county attorneys more as a way to counter ongoing turnover.

But Erb and Beam have said they prefer to hold off on higher-than-typical pay raises for a group of employees until the forthcoming salary and job classification study is finished in mid-2019.

“These offices need a tourniquet to stop the bleeding, but my fellow commissioners won’t even give them a Band-Aid,” Tomassetti said.

To address Consiglio’s request, Beam asked about the possibility of Smith moving into the vacant drug prosecutor’s position, which carries a $50,000 salary because of financial support from Operation Our Town. But Consiglio said he prefers Smith remain with her current cases that include homicide and rape charges.

Erb also addressed Consiglio’s request by referencing information provided by County Commissioners Association of Pennsyl­vania, showing $45,435 as an average 2017 salary for assistant district attorneys in counties with population similar to Blair’s.

But Consiglio and First Assistant District Attorney Pete Weeks immediately questioned the accuracy of that figure and referenced salary information compiled by the District Attorneys Association of Pennsyl­vania, reflecting experience and education. Weeks said he used that study to support raise requests for his department in 2019.

The same study, Weeks said, also indicates law clerks in other counties are typically starting $45,000 to $50,000 annually.

When Erb asked if Weeks could provide a copy of the salary study, Weeks handed his paper copy to county Human Resources Director Katherine Swigart.

The Public Defenders Association of Pennsylvania also has a similar study that can be submitted, too, Assistant Public Defender Ted Krol said.

Pending further review of those studies, the salary board agreed to delay any action on the raise requests until they meet on Nov. 29. Erb also indicated that he would like those studies forwarded to Doyle in light of her request.