By Daniel Menefee

The Senate passed a pay hike of up to $14,500 annually for Maryland’s 284 judges Wednesday, citing an imperative to hire and keep talented legal minds on the bench.

gold gavel

Photo by walknboston

“There’s the argument that lawyers can make much more money in the private sector, and we want our judges to be the best attorneys,” said Richard Colburn, R-Talbot, who voted for the pay raise. ”We want our judges to be from the best and brightest.”

The bill passed by a vote of 33-9, mostly along party lines, and now moves to the House.

Current judges’ salaries range from $127,000 to $180,000. Under a 3% increase, salaries would range from $141,000 to $196,000 by 2016, the top salary for the chief judge.

The legislature has until March 15 to amend the recommendations from the Judicial Compensation Commission or raises automatically kick in at twice what the Senate agreed to on Wednesday.

Thomas Middleton, D-Charles, said salaries need to be in a range that attracts young people to a career on the bench.

“You want to have the very best and talented,” Middleton said. “These people have families and [being on the bench] does create a hardship. They’ve got kids they have to put through college.”

“These judges interpret the law, that’s what their responsibility is,” Middleton said. “It’s not like a politician. It’s a very high level of expertise that you want, and you don’t want the salaries to detract from those young people that may be drawn to the bench.”

Middleton said the $14,500 pay hike was reasonable.

“We’ve kept the salaries low over the years and I don’t think this is unwarranted,” he said.

Sen.  J.B. Jennings, R-Baltimore County, said the raises were inappropriate under current fiscal realities.

“If we’re looking at a doomsday budget, you can’t give a raise to one party and not another,” Jennings said. “And these judges make a phenomenal salary as is. If someone wants to be a judge, they don’t do it for the money, they do it for the job.”

Jennings said the bench could still attract top talent without the raises.