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.