State judges' vacation reduced

The Baltimore Sun

The Court of Appeals decided yesterday to reduce vacation days for judges and allow them to buy back leave time, a cost-saving plan that some judges grudgingly backed amid concerns that it would burden those in busier trial courts.

The appellate court unanimously approved the measure, saying the judiciary wants to do its part to help fix Maryland's budget crisis.

Under the plan, the state's 285 judges will get 22 days of vacation next year instead of 27, and would then decide individually whether to make an after-tax contribution of up to five days' pay.

For each day's pay, they would get another day of leave.

The plan is expected to save more than $685,000 because the state won't have to pay retired judges to fill in vacancies. It also would raise money if judges pay to regain vacation time; their daily pay before taxes can be as much as $737.

"You have said to the people of Maryland that judges are not a breed apart," Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell said after the vote.

Most state workers are losing two to five days of pay under a mandate from Gov. Martin O'Malley to save $34 million as the state faces shortfalls expected to rise to nearly $2 billion in the next fiscal year.

Under the state Constitution, salaries for judges, lawmakers and other public officers can't be reduced during their terms.

Lawmakers have instituted a voluntary plan under which they can have their pay docked or write a personal check for up to five days' worth of salary.

Most lawmakers make $43,500 yearly; presiding officers earn more.

While several judges representing lower courts said during a hearing that they support the plan, some expressed misgivings.

Montgomery County Circuit Judge Durke G. Thompson said he believes few judges will buy back vacation time because it would be too costly for them and many are at an age when they are putting children through college or paying for weddings.

His daughter, he noted, is getting married next year in Jackson Hole, Wyo., and he had planned to take two weeks of vacation to celebrate.

"The vast majority of our bench consent to the provision," Thompson said. But, he added, "They are not happy with it. I don't think anyone enjoys the thought of less vacation and less leave from the worries of the court."

Thompson said that pay for Maryland judges lags behind the salaries of those in neighboring states, and he said his law clerk recently took a job in the private sector making more than he does. His annual salary is $140,352, compared with $181,352 for Bell.

The Judicial Compensation Commission, an independent panel, plans to recommended that Maryland judges get a pay raise of almost $40,000 over the next four years. Commission members said they took into account caseloads as well as comparable pay nationally.

But the proposal probably won't be well-received in the General Assembly, which must adopt a balanced budget as state revenues are plunging.

Betty Buck, a businesswoman who chairs the commission, said that if the legislature doesn't approve pay raises, it should change the law to allow the panel to convene again next year, instead of its next scheduled meeting four years from now.

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