Judges defend big pay hike

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From left, Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera; Patricl Woodward, chief judge, Court of Special Appeals; Judge Kathleen Cox; and Judge Joseph Getty testify Tuesday.

MarylandReporter.com

Maryland’s top judges told the House Appropriations Committee Tuesday that increasing the pay of all 313 Maryland judges in the state was necessary to retain the quality and diversity of Maryland’s judiciary.

The Judicial Compensation Commission has recommended that all the judges get a $35,000 pay hike phased in over the next four years. This would bring the salaries of 173 circuit court judges up to $189,433 and the pay for 117 district court judges, the lowest paid of the jurists, up to $176,333.

“I know it sounds outlandish what we propose,” said Elizabeth Buck, who chairs the independent commission. “I know it sounds crazy.”

“We believe we’re falling further and further behind” in offering competitive salaries to attract good lawyers to the bench, Buck said. (See related story, “$35,000 pay raise proposed for all 313 Maryland judges.”)

Mary Ellen Barbera, chief judge of the Court of Appeals, Maryland’s highest court, told the legislators, “We know, as you do, that public service requires sacrifice,” but not so much sacrifice as to “deter well-qualified applicants.”

The salary for Barbera, as head of the Maryland judiciary, would rise from $195,433 to $230,433 in 2021 under the proposal.

Despite its high cost of living, Maryland’s judicial salaries rank below surrounding states and “the other states are moving ahead,” said Court of Appeals Judge Joseph Getty, a former state senator and legislative aide to Gov. Larry Hogan.

Kathleen Cox, administrative judge for Baltimore County representing the circuit court judges, said some of the circuits are having difficulty recruiting enough qualified candidates for appointment to the bench.

Compensation and the contested elections for circuit judges “have some chilling effect” on qualified candidates, Cox said.

“The trend is toward younger lawyers and lawyers who come from the public sector,” said Barbera. “We need the diversity” of a wider range of talent to handle the complexity of legal issues.

No one testified against the salary hikes, and there were few questions from the committee members. The legislators have until March 15 to reject or reduce the pay hike, or they will go into effect automatically.