Panel recommends pay raises for state judges

The Baltimore Sun

At a time when state workers are being furloughed and face possible layoffs, Maryland judges would get a pay raise of nearly $40,000 over the next four years under a plan hatched by an influential commission that recommends salaries for those on the bench.

The Judicial Compensation Commission, which includes a lawyer, a developer and business leaders, plans to submit its recommendation to the General Assembly next month, according to Chairwoman Betty Buck, a businesswoman who chairs the state chamber of commerce. The commission's proposals are traditionally introduced as a joint resolution by the legislature's presiding officers.

The proposed schedule of yearly pay increases would push the salary of Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell to $220,210 by 2012. He now makes $181,352. Dozens of district judges, including Gov. Martin O'Malley's wife, Catherine Curran O'Malley, would see their salaries bumped from $127,252 to $167,110 a year. That's more than the governor's $150,000 annual salary.

The commission's recommendation, which would cost about $3 million a year when fully phased in, is likely to land in the General Assembly with a thud. O'Malley, a Democrat, might need to carve as much as $2 billion from his next budget because tax revenues have fallen off significantly with the recession.

"The bottom line is that for the legislature as well as judiciary our employees are being furloughed. The legislature has not had a pay increase for years and years, and we're not asking for one," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who is a practicing lawyer. "There just isn't any sentiment right now to increase salaries for anyone in these very tough economic times."

Commission members said their job is to evaluate judicial salaries to encourage recruitment and retention - and not to forecast the economy or balance the state's budget. They said they take into account caseloads as well as comparable judicial pay nationally and what lawyers can make in the private sector.

"Without the rule of law in Maryland, we have nothing, and it's just imperative we have good judges sit on the benches," Buck said. "You're asking a lot for someone who understands the law to give up their way of life to become a judge. It is a financial burden on them and their families."

Starting salaries at Baltimore law firms can reach $165,000, surpassing those of most judges, according to data provided by the commission. But Maryland ranks toward the top of all states for salaries at some judicial ranks, the data shows. Bell's salary ranks sixth nationally, or almost $30,000 more than the average.

The commission last recommended a series of annual pay increases in 2005, and district court judges have received a $15,000 pay raise over the four years since then. Judges had typically received any cost-of-living adjustments state employees got, but those were suspended as part of the four-year pay increase plan.

Angelita Plemmer, a spokeswoman for the Maryland judiciary, said it would be "premature" to comment on a report that hasn't been publicly issued. "We respect the process the General Assembly has put in place by creating an independent entity that reviews the issue," she said.

The General Assembly can reduce the recommended salary levels from the commission, chosen by O'Malley, Miller, House Speaker Michael E. Busch and the Maryland State Bar Association. However, the legislature cannot reduce a judge's salary below its current level.

As a check and balance on the branches of government, the judiciary submits its budget to O'Malley. "We really don't have any control over their budget request," spokeswoman Christine Hansen said.

Buck, who circulated the final report among the other commission members yesterday, said she would understand if the legislature can't approve the recommendation. She plans to ask that in lieu of the increases the legislature pass a law allowing the commission to meet again next year when the economy might have recovered and pay raises might be more affordable. The commission only meets every four years.

"I understand the budget and that our state is in a horrible place," Buck said. "How they implement this is up to the legislature."

Miller said he has spoken with several judges and that they recognize a salary increase probably isn't possible next year. He also noted that judges undertake "challenging work," singling out circuit and district court judges who handle trials. He said they should be commended for giving up lucrative jobs for public service.

Trial court judges in Maryland rank 19th in the nation in terms of salary, a standing that falls to 46th when adjusted for the area's cost of living, according to the National Center for State Courts.

Commission members said the state runs the risk of losing judges to the private sector. There are now eight vacancies out of 285 judgeships, with one retirement expected by the end of this month.

"Maryland should look at what a fair salary for a judge is so that we can encourage those with the talents set that should be applying for the bench to apply for the bench," said Edward J. Gilliss, a commission member and partner at Royston, Mueller, McLean & Reid.

Meanwhile, O'Malley has implemented a furlough plan for most state employees, resulting in the loss of two to five days worth of pay, depending on income levels.

"It's just surprising that people are talking about pay increases for people who are obviously well compensated already in these trying times," said Patrick Moran, Maryland director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. "I find it inherently unfair and irresponsible at this point in time."

Bell has adopted the furlough plan for employees in the judicial branch, including law clerks and judicial appointees. In his order last week, Bell cited the state's "fiscal crisis of extraordinary proportions."

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