By Daniel Menefee
The Senate rejected a floor amendment to freeze judges’ salaries at current levels Monday night as the Senate cleared the way for final passage of a 3% pay raise over three years – an increase of up to $14,500 by 2016.
Democrats shot down an amendment to freeze judges’ salaries by a 33-9 vote along party lines.
“Circuit court judges by the end of 2016 will be making more than our governor,” said Sen. Allan Kittleman, R-Howard, who proposed the salary freeze on the Senate floor Monday night. His amendment “keeps the salaries the same as they are right now…I think it is the right message we send to our citizens. We’re working on a very difficult budget right now.”
Kittleman noted that the annual cost would rise to $7 million annually by 2016 as the pay raises are phased in.
March 15 deadline
By March 15, the legislature must amend recommendations from the Judicial Compensation Commission or raises automatically kick in at 6% over the next three years — an increase of up to $29,000 over the same period.
Current judges’ salaries range from $127,000 to $180,000. Under a 3% increase, salaries would range from $141,000 to $196,000, the top salary for the chief judge.
Members of the Judicial Compensation Commission appeared before the House Appropriations Committee and the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee in early February. They lamented that Maryland judges ranked low in salaries compared to most states and that many judges were facing impending tuition bills for college-bound children. The commission said salaries needed to be higher to attract and keep talent on the bench.
Senate Budget subcommittee chair James Robey echoed the arguments of the commission Monday night that the state needed to attract and keep the best judges on the bench.
“These are the best of the best when it comes to the legal community,” Robey, D-Howard, told the Senate. “It’s very difficult to attract qualified people to become judges.”
He said many judges give up lucrative law practices to work long hours on the bench.
“[They] work lots of hours. It’s a lot of evening work,” Robey said. He said the salaries increases were “appropriate.”
Kittleman responded that there is no shortage of legal talent appearing before the Executive Nominations Committee for a job on the bench.
“Knowing how many come before us for judgeships, I don’t see a lack of people who want to become judges,” Kittleman responded. “And they’re good people.”
Kittleman said after the vote that it was hard to reconcile pay increases for judges in light of tax increases and budget cuts that are currently on the table.
“I don’t think someone who already makes $150,000 should get a raise,” Kittleman said. “The citizens of Maryland expect our public servants to sacrifice like everyone else is sacrificing in this economy.”