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Skewed scale of justice.

Byline: The Register-Guard

Most Oregonians don't know - or care - that salaries vary drastically for district attorneys across the state.

But Oregonians do know that if they become victims of crimes, as many will in their lifetimes, they should be able to have full confidence in their county's district attorney. The public expects the DA to be a highly skilled prosecutor and administrator whose office will bring criminals to justice.

Money can't guarantee effective prosecutions. But paying district attorneys an adequate salary can help ensure that the best and the brightest will be on the job when Oregonians need them. That's why state lawmakers should increase and standardize the pay for district attorneys.

The issue of DA compensation recently surfaced when Clatsop County commissioners voted to eliminate the $13,500 supplement that the county paid to District Attorney Josh Marquis. That left Marquis with the $79,500 base salary that the state pays district attorneys in the 27 counties with populations of less than 100,000.

Marquis, a public official not given to reticence, expressed his sharp displeasure over the cut, which left him with a salary less than that of his chief deputy. `I am not offended that my chief deputy makes more than me,' he told one Oregon newspaper. `I am offended by the disrespect the county commissioners show me and my office.'

Marquis has a legitimate gripe, not only because his pay was cut but because it appears that politics played a key role - his wife made an unsuccessful run in the last election against one of the commissioners who approved the final decision to eliminate the district attorney's supplement.

But there's a larger issue involved, and that is the outdated system that makes such reductions possible. This system has resulted in nonsensical disparities among the salaries of district attorneys across the state.

Here's how it works: In Oregon, district attorneys are state employees whose salaries are set by the Legislature. DAs in counties with populations of more than 100,000 receive a state salary of $94,300 and those in counties with fewer than 100,000 get $79,500.

But it gets complicated: In many counties, commissioners pay district attorneys salary supplements, a practice that harkens back to a time when district attorneys often served as county counsels. The supplements also reflect that district attorneys manage staffs made up of county employees and still offer legal advice to counties. In Lane County, for example, District Attorney Doug Harcleroad receives a $33,000 county supplement in addition to his $94,300 state salary.

In a number of small counties, commissioners have discontinued the supplements. As a result, some district attorneys make significantly less than their peers in similar-sized or smaller counties. For example, the district attorney in Coos County makes $17,000 less than the DA in Crook County, even though the population there is two-thirds smaller.

This is inequitable, and it results in DA salaries in some counties that are far below those of their peers throughout the Northwest and nation. It's hard to believe this doesn't discourage highly skilled attorneys from leaving lucrative private practices to become district attorneys. And that's bad news for Oregonians who want their prosecutors to come from the ranks of the state's best attorneys.

The Oregon District Attorneys Association has proposed aligning DA salaries with those of state circuit court judges, who will earn an annual salary of $111,132 once the governor signs into law a pay raise approved by the 2007 Legislature. Under the association's proposal, district attorneys in counties of more than 100,000 would earn 125 percent of that judicial salary, while those in counties of fewer than 100,000 would earn the same as a judge.

That seems excessive, although the idea of eliminating county subsidies and making district attorneys reliant on a higher level of state compensation makes sense. A better alternative would be to set the pay for district attorneys from all counties at the same level as the pay for trial judges, who make the same amount regardless of which county they serve. Or, if state lawmakers want to preserve a tiered pay scale, they could use judicial salaries as the high end.

The precise salary figures are less important than the need to make certain district attorneys are fairly and adequately compensated throughout Oregon.
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Title Annotation:Editorials; The Legislature should fix the pay system for DAs
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Aug 4, 2007
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