Thursday, February 16, 2012

When Judges Get Practical

Today the Court of Appeals will have a chance to come down out of the clouds and get real.  Perhaps even as real as the judges get about their salaries. 

The Court ruled last month in DeWolfe v. Richmond that the poor must be represented by free lawyers when they appear on criminal charges before court commissioners.  Five of the seven judges didn't care that no funding or procedures yet existed to comply with their ruling and loftily declared that they could not wait "even for a brief time." 

Today they will be asked to reconsider and hold off implementation until August.  That would give legislators time to find the $21 million that Public Defender Paul DeWolfe wants for more lawyers, among other things.  

If the Court again refuses, it doesn't mean that DeWolfe will immediately comply, because he can't.  We just will likely see more lawsuits at public expense.  Such practical issues apparently don't concern the judges.

Unless it comes to their salaries.  This year the Judicial Compensation Commission wants to give judges $29,000 raises, phased in over four years.  Not only will these raises jump their salaries but their pensions as well.  The lowest-paid judges (at $127,252) retiring after 16 years are currently entitled to an annual pension of about $84,750.  If the raises go through, that pension jumps to $104,000.  Chief Judge Robert Bell's pension, which totals nearly $121,000 should he retire now, would rise to $140,000 with the proposed raise.

And if the Legislature fails to act on the Commission's recommendations the new salaries (and pensions) automatically take effect, thanks to the way Maryland law is written. 

The judges and commission members offer a number of reasons to support these raises, a subject I plan to discuss at more length.  But contrast the Court's lack of interest in the impact of its ruling in DeWolfe with this very practical justification for their raises, as articulated by District Court Chief Judge Ben Clyburn and quoted by

“We bring in tons of money. Compared to the lottery, we bring it in.”

In other words:  "Pay the men and women who raise so much money imposing fines and costs in the courtroom."   It's an economic rationale entirely missing from the high-minded DeWolfe decision.

When I recently attended parking court I suddenly saw the proceedings with new eyes.   I noticed that the judge, even when she wanted to give defendants a financial break, always imposed the full amount of the court costs.  Cha-ching!  Money in the bank for judicial raises and pensions.  Every guilty verdict with a fine imposed created more reasons to pay our judges. 

Maybe the judges can also pay for the $21 million in free lawyers with more guilty verdicts and higher fines and costs.  Hey, it's more lucrative than the lottery, right?