Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Raises for Judges

originally published February 1, 2010

Maryland judges are hoping that Maryland legislators forget about them next month. If they do, the judges will get nearly $40,000 in raises apiece.

Every four years the Judicial Compensation Commission is charged with recommending judicial salaries. Whatever it recommends, Maryland law requires the governor to include that amount in his budget, and the General Assembly must do likewise at the start of the legislative session. Unless the Assembly takes action to delete or modify any raises within 50 days, they go through.

That’s what happened in 2005 when judges got raises of $15,000 to $30,000 even though the Assembly had intended to reduce those raises to smaller amounts. Legislators just forgot to act. Oops.

Last year, after the Judicial Compensation Commission recommended a whopping $39,858 raise for every judge, legislators managed to postpone consideration until 2010 because the economy was so bad. So now it’s back on the table, with the economy still bad.

How did the Judicial Compensation Commission, which is made up of appointees by the governor, assembly leaders, and Maryland State Bar, conclude that these raises were justified?

Easy. The judges told them so.

Judges Robert Bell, Clayton Greene, and Ben Clyburn, appearing before the Commission, claimed that too many judges were retiring before the mandatory retirement age of 70, and that raising their salaries would stop this. Who are they kidding?

The pension system, not the salaries, encourages judges to retire before age 70. They can collect two-thirds of their salary after 16 years as judges beginning at age 60. Then they sit on the bench up to 90 days a year and make up the rest of their former salary. They trade in full-time work for 90 days at the same income level. And since their pensions are always tied to the salaries of active judges, they have no incentive to keep working past retirement eligibility. If active judges get a raise, they get a raise.

The judges also claim that large raises will promote “diversity” among judges. More women? No. More minorities? No. “Diversity” means more appointments from the ranks of highly paid lawyers who otherwise have no interest in public service. How about that for a twist on “diversity“?

Then they argue that they are losing judges to the federal bench. There are 265 Maryland state trial judges, and only 25 federal judges currently on the U.S. District Court for Maryland. Four of these federal judges came from the state bench and were appointed over a 17-year period. This is a run on the Maryland judiciary?

With this kind of reasoning, I now understand why I have so often scratched my head at decisions handed down by the Maryland appeals courts.

Fundamentally, what the judges really believe is that they should be paid just like federal judges. Not other state judges, where they currently rank 13th amongst the states (and 6th for Chief Judge Bell.) Federal judges.

They offer no analysis for this. No justification. It’s just a claim.

I think a case can be made for increasing the salaries of many of the judges by some appropriate amount. It’s too bad that the Judicial Compensation Commission didn’t make that case. They just swallowed what the judiciary told them and recommended obscene increases at a time when state employees are being furloughed.

Salaries ought to be tied in some way to what judges actually do, what the stakes are for the parties who appear before them, and to the impact their decisions have on the public. And if the Judicial Compensation Commission was the least familiar with what happens in the Maryland District Court, they wouldn’t recommend any raises at all for its 112 judges. In fact, they would tell the General Assembly that unless it gives the District Court meaningful work to do in criminal court, it’s a colossal waste of money.

I’ll explain why in the next two articles.


Attorney General Douglas Gansler recently wrote a piece in the Baltimore Sun arguing that no judges should be elected. Presumably this would de-politicize the selection of judges.

Immediately Governor Martin O’Malley undercut this argument with his appointment of Thomas V. Miller III, son of Senate President Thomas “Mike” Miller, as judge. Young Miller applied to be a judge in Anne Arundel County and was left off the list of recommended candidates sent to the governor by the county judicial nominating commission. O’Malley tore up the list and demanded another, which just happened to include Miller. (See The Politics of Picking Judges.)

After several members of the nominating commission resigned in protest, O’Malley laid low for a year. But last week he quietly appointed Miller to the Anne Arundel County bench.

We don’t need elections to infuse judicial selections with politics. We’ll always have governors looking to seek or grant political favors.

And what will Senate President Miller do now that the salaries of his son and O'Malley's wife are in his hands?

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