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Letters: Judges' vital role in government must be reflected in compensation

The independent Judicial Compensation Commission recently reported its findings to the Maryland General Assembly — presented to the Senate and House of Delegates in the form of joint resolutions — regarding judge's salaries

Our state's judges have not received a raise since 2006, and our Circuit Court Judges' pay, when ranked among that of their national peers and adjusted for cost of living, pathetically ranks 43rd in the nation.

Just as we take understandable pride in the first-in-the-nation ranking of our state's educational system, we should be suitably embarrassed by that of our judicial compensation — embarrassed not simply by the aforementioned statistic itself, but also by what it says about our state's under-appreciation of what our judges do on a daily basis. 

In order to attract new, qualified candidates to the bench, and to retain the judges currently serving, competitive judicial compensation is necessary and appropriate.

That Maryland's judiciary is neither an agency of the executive branch nor a creation of the legislature is often forgotten.  We say we want public safety — but we have none without the judiciary. 

We claim to want order and tranquillity — we have none without the judiciary. 

We want a business-friendly atmosphere — we have none without the judiciary. 

In short: no courts, no justice, no freedom; in fact, no society and no state.

It is critical that the judiciary, as our Founding Fathers emphasized, be a separate and equal branch of government.

In his "Thoughts on Government," John Adams wrote: "The dignity and stability of government in all its branches, the morals of the people, and every blessing of society depend so much upon an upright and skillful administration of justice, that the judicial power ought to be distinct from both the legislative and executive, and independent upon both, that so it may be a check upon both and both should be checks upon that.

In a letter to George Wythe, Thomas Jefferson used virtually identical language, while Alexander Hamilton proclaimed in language which should be emblazed above the doorways of our State House: "Laws are a dead letter without courts to expound and define their true meaning and operation." 

Indeed, we cannot play the game without the triad of scissors, rock and paper, with each serving a separate and distinct purpose that checks the other two.

This all seems simple and elemental enough, yet press coverage of the hearings held on the Joint Resolutions displayed a remarkable misunderstanding of the role of the judiciary within our constitutional structure. 

Judges, unlike executives and legislators, are not representatives of the people — nor should they be.  Rather, their function is to interpret the law. 

Unfortunately, most Marylanders think of judges in but two contexts: having to go to court before a judge, and reading a news account of a controversial court decision. 

However, there is so much more that the public never sees, and to that I would urge every Marylander to visit his or her local courthouse, just once, to see how judges actually do their jobs. You will be pleasantly surprised.

"Nothing can contribute more to the independence of judges than a fixed provision for their support," said Hamilton. 

Maryland's civil and criminal caseloads are burgeoning. Our 284 state judges — well educated and, by dint of study and experience, learned in the law — have kept their faith and given us a society we would not otherwise have, and it is time they were appropriately compensated for their dedication to upholding the rule of law.

Henry E. Dugan Jr., president, Maryland State Bar Association


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