By Megan Poinski

A gavel.When adjusted for cost of living, Maryland’s judges are some of the worst paid in the nation, according to a study from the National Center for State Courts.

The study, released last week, ranks trial court judges’ adjusted salaries at 43rd in the nation.

“That sounds about right,” said Elizabeth Buck, the chairwoman of the Maryland Judicial Compensation Commission. “Pathetic, that’s what it is.”

The annual survey of judicial salaries compares salaries in all 50 states and Washington, D.C. Looking at raw dollar figures, Maryland’s judges’ pay across the board is in the top 40% of the nation. However, those dollars don’t go quite as far with the state’s high cost of living.

Current judicial salaries are:
·      $162,352 for Court of Appeals judges, making them the 17th best paid high court judges. The chief judge is paid $181,352. But adjusted for cost of living in Maryland, those salaries are equivalent to $129,944 and $145,151.
·      $149,552 for Court of Special Appeals judges, earning a ranking as the 15th best paid intermediate appellate judges. The chief judge makes $152,552. Adjusted for cost of living, those salaries are $119,700 and $122,100.
·      $140,352 for Circuit Court judges, earning a ranking as the 17th best paid trial court judges in the nation. However, with cost of living factored in, that paycheck is equivalent to $112,336.

District Court judges were not included in the survey, but they are paid $127,252. Adjusted for cost of living, that is $101,850.

The seven-member Judicial Compensation Commission meets every few years to make salary recommendations to the General Assembly based on cost of living, workloads, expertise, attractiveness, and salaries in nearby jurisdictions. The General Assembly can reject the recommendation, reduce it, or accept it. Because of tight finances, Maryland’s judges have not had a raise since 2008.

In the commission’s last report, submitted to the General Assembly in late 2009, they recommended a $39,858 increase for all judges, phased in over a four-year period. The recommendation was rejected, and salaries stayed the same. Buck said this was presented during the 2010 legislative session, where layoffs and furloughs were occurring throughout government.

“They understood the need. They just didn’t have the money,” Buck said.

The Judicial Compensation Commission will start meeting again this fall to come up with new salary recommendations for the General Assembly’s 2012 legislative session. Buck said they always take their time to look at all aspects of a judge’s job to come up with fair compensation – including how far Maryland has fallen in nationwide judicial salary rankings.

Buck said that while Maryland has many needs, the state must increase its judicial salaries. Some new law school grads are making as much as judges at their first jobs at big firms, she said. Other bright legal minds may just opt to start private firms instead of pursuing – or continuing – careers on the bench.

“We can’t do that in Maryland,” she said. “The dockets would just back up, and it would be horrific.”