Fixing Maryland judicial pensions

Last month, the Maryland General Assembly approved some of the deepest cuts ever made to the state's underfunded retirement system. As a result, most state employees will be paying more into the pension plan and receiving less when they retire.

But there was one well-paid group not called upon to make a sacrifice: Maryland's judges, who enjoy some of the most lucrative pensions in the system at an average of $68,000 per year. That is two to three times what a typical public school teacher receives.

Before the public picks up pitchforks and torches to lay siege to their local courthouse, however, they may want to peruse the excellent analysis of the issue by, the nonprofit news website. The pensions are generous because judges' salaries are not, and the legislature's failure to address their lagging paychecks leaves the retirement plan as the best incentive for attracting qualified candidates to the bench.

Making the matter all the more ridiculous is that state law requires judges to retire at age 70. That leads to double-dipping as retired judges collect their pensions and are also paid to hear cases on a part-time basis. Without those retirees (113 of them were called upon last year alone), the state's judiciary would be overwhelmed.

Chances are, judicial pensions won't be spared forever. The Judicial Compensation Commission is studying the issue and is expected to make recommendations to the legislature. It could easily result in judges paying more into retirement — just as police officers, teachers and others in the state retirement system soon will.

But Maryland can ill afford to shortchange judges. Maryland's top lawyers earn salaries well into the six figures, and while serving on the bench usually comes with some sacrifice in compensation, judicial pay here now lags most of the surrounding states.

Raising judicial salaries would make a lot of sense as policy, and in the context of the state's $34.2 billion annual budget, it is no more than a drop in the bucket. But with unemployment still high in Maryland at 6.8 percent and the economy still struggling, voters may not be so excited to hear that state employees who earn as much as $181,352 a year (in the case of Chief Judge Robert M. Bell) will be getting more.

The easier solution would seem to be raising the retirement age to 75. After all, if judges keep working, they don't collect pension benefits. But when that exact proposal was approved by the legislature as a constitutional amendment in 1994, voters promptly rejected it.

Why? Probably because it appeared to be motivated by older white male judges trying to hold onto power. One of the most outspoken opponents at the time was Judge Bell (then the youngest judge on the Court of Appeals) who believed it would result in fewer opportunities for African-American and women candidates on the bench.

Yet today, there's a much greater chance women and minority judges will be forced out by mandatory retirement at the cost of diversity. And examples of high-performing septuagenarians abound in public life from Bill Cosby to Nancy Pelosi. Forced retirement not only shortchanges them, it poses a loss for the courts, too.

That's not to suggest that retired judges don't have a role to play as part-timers helping out on the bench, too. State law caps their total compensation so that it is less then what they'd earn as a full-time judge. Some retirees eventually opt to preside over cases for no salary at all, just the mileage it takes to get them to the courthouse.

Still, judicial pensions can't be left untouched. The disparity between what the private and public sectors offer their workers is becoming too great to be ignored. Just on a symbolic level, such generous pensions are an affront to average working people who must settle for 401(k) plans and Social Security.

The answer then requires a balanced approach that keeps judges on the job past the age of 70, raises their salaries but reduces pension costs to the state. Voters can accept such changes, particularly if it saves them money and puts the best qualified people on the bench. That's a win-win in most anyone's judgment.