March 11, 2012

Judges headed for $14,000 raise, but could get $29,000 if House fails to act

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By Daniel Menefee
Dan@MarylandReporter.com

gold gavel

Photo by walknboston

House lawmakers have 48-hours to approve a Senate resolution raising judges’ salaries by $14,500 over three years, or  larger pay hikes of up to $29,000 could take effect automatically under Maryland law.

“As a practical matter, we’re not going to have enough time for the Senate to join with us in agreement if we adopt any amendments,” Del. John Bohanan, D-St. Mary’s, said Friday as the House Appropriations Committee took up the raises just five days before the larger increases would take effect. “If we amend the bill there’s a strong certainty that the Judicial Compensation Commission’s recommendation will take effect.”

The committee voted favorably for the salary increases by a 14-7 vote on Friday. The full House must vote on the Senate bill by Wednesday, March 14, to stop the full increases.

The Judicial Compensation Commission submits salary recommendations to the legislature every four years. The increases become automatic if lawmakers fail to modify or reject the increases within 50 days of the commission’s recommendations.

Better some increase than the full amount

Bohanan said it was better to approve an 11%  increase than default to an increase of up to 23% recommended by the commission. He said time was not on the House’s side to offer any amendments because the Senate was unlikely to cooperate.

Delegate Tony McConkey

Delegate Tony McConkey

The Appropriations Committee rejected an amendment Friday offered by Del. Tony McConkey, R- Anne Arundel, to freeze salaries. Judges currently make $127,000 to $181,000, depending on the court. Maryland judges last received raises phased in from 2006 to 2009 in the range of $15,000 to $25,000.

Under the Senate bill, salaries will range from $141,000 to $196,000, an increase of up to 11% through 2016.

McConkey was irate that judges would get raises when a “Doomsday Budget” proposal was on the table. That scenario would roll back a 2% cost-of-living increase the governor promised for state employees and require them to pay an additional 3% towards health insurance premiums.

State employees received pay cuts under furloughs from 2009 to 2011 but were given a one-time bonus of $750 in 2012.

“Given the sacrifices everyone is making with furloughs and cuts, I don’t see the need to give judges a $14,500 raise in this time of austerity,” McConkey said. He said judges received “hefty regular increases” in the last decade and their salaries should be frozen at current levels.

McConkey said legislators would be lucky to have such a compensation commission of their own.

“I just want to know how legislators can get one of these commissions…ours sucks!” McConkey said to a roar of laughter at a House Appropriations Committee hearing on Friday. “Us poor old legislators haven’t had a raise in ten years. I had a one-time raise in 2002, but nothing like this.”

(Actually, legislators got an $12,000 raise phased in with annual increases from 2003 to 2006. Since then, they make $43,500 but cannot get a raise at least until 2015.)

Lawmaker says legislature held hostage on judges’ pay

Del. Kathy Szeliga, R-Baltimore County, spoke in favor of McConkey’s amendment.

“I don’t think we need to be held hostage by time,” Szeliga said. “I saw a bill come into the Senate last year and get passed in one day…more than one time I’ve seen this happen, and I’m sure the president of the Senate would act on this.”

Delegate Mary-Dulany James

Delegate Mary-Dulany James

Del. Mary-Dulany James, D-Harford, said McConkey  threw a wrench into similar legislation in 2005 when the Republicans offered amendments to curb the commission’s recommendations of up to 20%.

“The Senate did not move and that is when the raises took effect,” James said.”If we fail to act, we will have a repeat.” James said the Senate is likely to oppose any amendments this year as well.

“Judges have been getting pay increases all along while the rest of the state has been suffering under furloughs and all kinds of extraordinary measures, and yet we’re voting to give judges pay increases,” Szeliga said after the committee voted 14-7 in favor of the salary increases. “There are too many lawyers in the General Assembly.”

The Senate passed the 11% raise on March 7 under strong objections from Sen. Allan Kittleman, R-Howard, who said raises were inappropriate when Marylanders were facing a slew of tax increases and spending cuts to close a $1 billion deficit.

James claims low salaries hurt diversity on the bench

James reiterated arguments from the Judicial Compensation Commission in February that salaries were too low to attract judges from different areas of the law, and said the decision of the Appropriations Committee should be based on the testimony of the experts.

“Our judges are no longer a diverse bench,” James said. “In the last 30 years we have lost the diversity from the private sector…because we no longer have a bench that draws from all areas of law.”

She said there were too many government lawyers moving to the bench who lack the experience to rule on difficult cases.

“When you lose that diversity, you lose that ability to deal with complex cases that are unknown to government lawyers who are coming on the bench — and who are not readily trainable,” James said.

She said that magnitude of a judge’s responsibility should be the primary consideration in determining the salary increase.

“There is no other position…that can hold someone’s future in the palm of your hand like a judge,” James said. “When you’re in that courtroom, you want the kind of bench that is recommended by the experts.”

McConkey responded that there were plenty of good applicants applying to the bench and the lack of private lawyers moving to the bench was because the “process has become much more political.”

Del. Mary Washington, D-Baltimore City, and Ana Sol Gutierrez, D-Montgomery, were the only Democrats on the Committee who voted against increase.

Del. Wendell Beitzell, R- Allegany, was the only Republican to vote for the increase – fearing delays from the Senate would trigger the higher increases requested by the commission.

Since retirement pay for judges in Maryland is based on the salary of current judges, retired judges and their spouses will also see a pension increase if judicial salaries are raised.