By Megan Poinski
While the governor and legislature this year raised what state workers and teachers pay into their pension plans and cut benefits for future employees, the state’s most generous retirement plan survived completely unscathed – the pensions for judges.
The 351 retired judges (or their spouses) get an average pension of $68,000 a year, and 113 of the judges, who must retire at 70, can also earn up to a third of the annual salary by continuing to process cases around the state.
By contrast the, the thousands of retired state troopers, teachers and employees are younger, make far less money, work longer at their jobs and collect much smaller retirement benefits. Troopers pensions average $42,000 a year, teachers average $18,000 to $31,000 depending on whether they are in the older more generous system or the newer one, and state employees average $11,000 to 19,000 a year, according the pension system’s annual report.
The Pension Sustainability Commission, which meets again Monday, only recommended that the Judicial Compensation Commission study potential budget-cutting changes to the system and make recommendations to the General Assembly in a future session. But this is the same compensation commission that has been recommending raises for judges for several years, which have been rejected by the legislature.
The size of judicial pensions are based on the salaries of current judges.
The case for better benefits
Like other professional positions, the state needs to set compensation for judges at a level that will attract the most qualified candidates, said Court of Appeals Judge Clayton Greene, chairman of the Judicial Compensation Committee of the Maryland Judicial Conference. And the most qualified candidates for judges are experienced lawyers, who can easily earn six figures in private practice.
The state realized long ago that it could not afford to pay judges salaries similar to what top lawyers may earn in the private sector. So with a separate pension system, as well as a separate commission to decide how to pay judges, a compromise of sorts was struck.
“Upon retirement, the pension a judge receives is considered deferred compensation,” Greene said. “It’s the way judges look at it. It’s the way the legislature looks at it, and it was the way the founding fathers looked at it because they created a separate pension system.”
Judges contribute 6% of their salaries to the pension system for their first 16 years on the bench, then nothing after that. The day they are sworn in as a judge they are immediately vested in the retirement system, and can retire with full benefits – two-thirds of the salary for a sitting judge — once they turn 60.
Greene added that there are other reasons to pay judges well, both in salary dollars and in retirement. Judges are prohibited from holding other jobs or doing much of anything else for money. The only exception, Greene said, is teaching at a law school or community college, which is both time consuming and poorly paid compared to other legal jobs.
According to the National Center for State Courts Survey of Judicial Salaries, pay for judges in Maryland is about the 16th highest in the nation. Greene said that in order to attract the most qualified candidates, it would be better if the state were closer to the top of the pay scale with more competitive salaries. As it is now, Virginia, Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania all have much higher judicial salaries than Maryland.
Collecting two paychecks, but “working for free”
Because state law requires judges to retire at age 70, Greene said, there are judges who were forced to hang up their robes before they were ready.
“They still want to work, and while they are constitutionally senile, they are not physically senile,” he said.
Greene said that no matter how many open seats on the bench are filled, there are not enough judges to do everything that is needed in the court system. State laws often expand the responsibility of the judiciary, which Greene said is good, but judges are needed to do the work. So many of the retired judges come back and preside over different matters. According to judiciary statistics, 113 retired judges returned last year to sit on the bench.
When a judge is retired, yet sitting to hear a court matter, he or she collects both a pension and a paycheck from the government. However, according to state law, that judge can be paid no more than 180 days in a year, and cannot earn more than 1/3 the salary of a sitting judge.
Greene said it’s common practice for retired judges to continue presiding over matters after those 180 days are up and they are not getting paid. Last year, according to judiciary statistics, 36 retired judges worked without pay and they each worked an average of about four weeks without pay.
Being able to have retired judges preside over cases is a real help to the judiciary, Greene said.
“We have to have judges there to hear cases,” he said. “We cannot place controls on the number of cases that come into the system. It seems like nowadays, everyone goes to court to solve their problems.”
Greene said that making decisions about the future of the pension system for any group of employees is difficult, but he is glad that the legislature let the Judicial Compensation Commission study the possibilities.
There is a delicate balance between cutting costs to keep the system afloat, and keeping compensation at a level where talented attorneys would consider leaving their jobs to pursue a career as a judge.
“We have to look at the sustainability of the pension system, but we also have to look at the sustainability of the courts,” Greene said. “If we change the system and reduce benefits to new judges, some may be afraid that they are going to leave. How will we attract lawyers to be judges?”