Md. judges’ salaries are too low, compensation commission agrees

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A gavel.By Megan Poinski

Agreeing with judges themselves and the Maryland Bar Association, the Judicial Compensation Commission vowed to recommend that the General Assembly give the state’s judges a raise.

At their meeting Wednesday evening, members did not have any formal proposals for these raises. After hearing judges’ pleas for more money, however, their minds were made up.

“We cannot continue to let our judiciary fall behind,” said commission member Annette Funn.

When their salaries are adjusted for cost of living, Maryland trial court judges’ pay ranks 43rd in the nation. Members of the judiciary received their last raise in 2008. In 2009, the Judicial Compensation Commission recommended an across-the-board $39,858 raise phased in over four years for all judges, but the General Assembly did not enact it.

On Wednesday, several judges told commission members – who are charged with making recommendations to the legislature for salary and pension changes for the judicial branch – that the low salaries are out of step with the prestige of their positions.

Life changing decisions

“We are the ones who make the life changing decisions that can send someone to jail for the rest of their lives,” said Judge Marcella Holland, the chair of the Conference of Circuit Judges, who serves on the Baltimore City Circuit Court.

Not only do they make life-altering decisions in criminal cases, Holland said, but Circuit Court judges also make big differences to ordinary people through civil cases and family disputes.

But Holland said that judges are more than just umpires who call balls and strikes. They also get involved to make the judicial system more responsive and more fair – Holland said it’s like writing the rules of the game as it goes along. Judges try new initiatives, like alternative dispute resolutions, to try and improve the way that the courts operate. And whenever the court is handed a new initiative by the General Assembly or the current economic situation – which has flooded dockets with foreclosure cases – Holland said judges gladly shoulder the new burden.

Chipping away at independence

Judge Ben Clyburn, chief judge of the District Court, said that failure to increase judicial salaries is “chipping away at the independence of the third branch of government, both on the operational side and the capital side. Once you chip it away, you can’t get it back.”

Although Clyburn loves his job, he said he is thinking about retiring at age 60 – when the law allows judicial retirement – because the low pay is demoralizing. There are young associate lawyers working at some of the state’s bigger law firms who left judicial clerkships to get salaries larger than what the judges are making, Clyburn said.

“The stagnation of our salaries devalues what we do,” Clyburn said. “It sends the wrong message.”

He added that the judiciary always needs to attract the best and the brightest lawyers to seek spots on the bench. With consistently low salaries, Clyburn said it is nearly impossible to attract successful private attorneys – who are well-rounded and have the diverse experience needed to be a good judge – to leave their litigating jobs behind to earn a tiny fraction of their salaries.

Can’t afford to retire

Court of Appeals Judge Clayton Greene Jr., who chairs the judiciary’s own compensation committee and turned 60 this year, said that he cannot afford to retire even though he’s been on the bench for 24 years. Clearly, he said, the state’s judicial salaries have failed miserably in staying competitive and keeping up with inflation.

Clyburn said that the courts do bring in quite a lot of money – nearly $87 million going to the general fund in fiscal year 2011 through District Court alone, according to figures passed out at the meeting.

“We bring in tons of money. Compared to the lottery, we bring it in,” Clyburn said. “And we don’t bring in false hopes. We bring justice.”

The Judicial Compensation Commission will meet again next month to work on detailed proposals.

About The Author

Len Lazarick

Len Lazarick was the founding editor and publisher of and is currently the president of its nonprofit corporation and chairman of its board He was formerly the State House bureau chief of the daily Baltimore Examiner from its start in April 2006 to its demise in February 2009. He was a copy editor on the national desk of the Washington Post for eight years before that, and has spent decades covering Maryland politics and government.


  1. Sjmayo

    Try having your income cut in half and see what that is like.  You still have to pay bills every month.  No break on that either.  And I heard that judges do not have to pay a toll over the bridges either from what I understand.  Give me a break!  More greed that I see.  And who decides who gets what and how much anyway.  Fed up in Maryland.

  2. Joseph Dooley

    Work for the government, and you’re set for life. Entitlement mentality is eating away at Americans’ work ethic.

  3. mm

     Being a judge is a difficult and often unthanked job….give them the money.   but hold back 10% for independent judicial watchers.,appointed by the general assembly.  That should work.

  4. Richard Baldwin Cook

    There is a disconnect here. 

    The judges in Maryland operate in a virtually unsupervised ethical world. This is why criminals (judges who let the air out of the tires of courthouse employees, who park too close to the judge’s car) and drunkards (as reported from time to time in the Baltimore Sun) stay on the bench, year after year. This is also why relatives of politicians (the wife of the current governor, the son of the current Maryland Senate President) are appointed to the bench.The current crop of Maryland judges, beginning with the Chief Judge, do not hesitate to suspend the law license of an officer of their own courts (myself) who complains honestly and properly (recusal motions, confidential complaint to supervising judges, discovery motions in response to show cause orders) about the documented misconduct of a federal district judge. There should be an association between the ethical behavior of the judges and the compensation they receive. If there were such a link, the Judicial Compensation Commission, itself a tool of the Executive and Judicial Branches, then criminals and drunks would not be appointed to the bench or permitted to remain on the bench after their misconduct is known. Nor would close relatives of  influential politicians find family ties to be a quick route to a black robe. Nor would the attorney disciplinary procedures be mobilized to punish an attorney who objects, when his clients’ important legal matters are placed before a federal judge, who is on the take to his former law partners and well connected lawyer groups, who gift the judges with cash, trips to resorts and overseas junkets. There is no sound reason why age 60 ought to be the full-pension retirement age for judges. This merely permits double dipping (pension plus a big salary from the affluent law firm) and encourages a middle age judge to be extra nice to clients of the big law firms, where the soon-retired judge plans to work. I say: no pay increases until (1) the retirement age is raised and (2) a judge’s misbehavior is properly, promptly and publicly sanctioned. Judges must be demonstrably ethical. Their conduct must be above any hint of self-dealing and bias – to say nothing of criminal misconduct.In the future, the Maryland judiciary must not use its power to levy vengeance on officers of their own courts, who insist on the highest ethical standards for federal judges. 

  5. Skip727

    Judges Clyburn and Greene, welcome to the real world. Most folks can’t afford to retire at 60 and to say “stagnation of salaries devalues what we do” makes one think you value yourself more than the people who PAY your salary. Like I said Welcome To The REAL WORLD!

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