By Len Lazarick
The House of Delegates Thursday rejected Republican attempts to lower a proposed pay raise for judges and tentatively approved a plan to give the 313 judges $20,000 more over the next four years.
House Appropriations Committee Chair Maggie McIntosh said the raises were necessary to keep attracting the best talent to serve on the bench.
But the raises of $5,000 per year for the next four years were also the amount that their Senate counterparts would agree to, she said.
If the House and Senate do not agree on the same amount of salaries for judges by March 15, the $35,000 raise recommended by the Judicial Compensation Commission would automatically go into effect.
“We must work with our Senate colleagues on this issue,” McIntosh said. If the House sent them a lower amount, “they will disagree,” and the higher pay will take effect.
The Senate has taken no action on the joint resolution, even canceling a hearing earlier this month.
Del. Joe Cluster, R-Baltimore County, proposed an amendment lowering the judicial pay to $1,000 a year over four years.
“These are public servants. They are not here to get rich,” Cluster said. He and other Republican delegates said their own constituents were struggling to make incomes far below what the judges are making.
“We don’t need to listen to the Senate,” said House Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga, arguing against what she called a “clearly out-of-line increase,” especially after “they just got $14,000 in the last go around.”
$174K for circuit judges, $161K for district court
The committee action would bring the salaries of 173 circuit court judges up to $174,433 and the pay for 117 district court judges, the lowest paid of the jurists, up to $161,333. This represents a 13% hike compared to current pay for circuit court judges and 14% for district court judges.
The chief judge of the Court of Appeals would get $215,433 beginning July 1, 2021, when the final pay hike kicks in.
Del. C.T. Wilson, D-Charles, a former prosecutor now in private practice as a defense attorney, said, “It may seem like a lot but I promise you it’s worth it,” in order to attract the best candidates to be judges.
McIntosh said, “I’m not saying we have a dearth of applicants” for judgeships, but now they tend to come from government service, as opposed to the higher-paying private sector.
“The cases before our courts today are becoming more and more complex,” McIntosh, and the state needed to attract private attorneys with expertise in those areas.
All judges in Maryland are initially appointed by the governor after applying to Judicial Nominating Commissions set up throughout the state to review their qualifications.
Del. Susan McComas, R-Harford, an attorney herself, said that those attorneys handling the most complex civil litigation “are making half a million dollars” a year, and would not be attracted by higher salaries.
The House rejected Cluster’s cut 40-89.