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?  



  1. Paige, the 2 are unrelated. I don't dispute that the money to fund the PDs needs to be raised, although it looks like the law is about to be rewritten eliminating the requirement for lawyers at Bail Hearings. The judges that I know left private practices where they earned more than they do now. The loss of income is a known effect of accepting a job in Public Service. The pension benefit has always been a factor in accepting the loss of immediate income. However, to retain quality judges and have qualified people give up private practice, the salaries need to be realistic in the legal world. Professional athletes are paid enormous sums of money, but those numbers are realistic in the world of professional sports. The numbers are ridiculous, but not when you compare it to their world. In the legal world, the raises requested for the judges do not put their salaries in the ridiculous category. Yes, the requested salaries are twice or three times greater than what school teachers, police officers, and fire fighters receive, but successful lawyers have always made that much more than those public servants. I see the daily grind of the judges and the job is not as glorious and easy as it seemed when you and were prosecutors. There is more bs that they have to be involved with off the bench, than I could imagine. The criminal dockets have grown insanely. In Baltimore City Circuit Court, the judges would be underpaid at twice their present salaries. I waited around yesterday begging for a court to try a case, but none was available. Even if they had double the judges to handle the daily tsunami, there are not enough jurors who show up when summonsed, so the backlog would not get any better. A good judge works his or her ass off to do a judge's job. Are there some judges who may not be worth half of their present salary- sure there are. Just as there are lazy and stupid lawyers who act as nothing but pall bearers and make a phenomenal living. No selection process is perfect, but you don't pay based on the least common denominator. The bottom line is that the proposed raises are not extreme. The need for PDs or private attorneys at Bail Hearings is also reasonable. It is a Legislative decision on both issues, and it is not the fault of the judiciary if the Legislature chooses not to fund the PDs, and it is not the PDs fault if the judges do not receive raises.

  2. Thank you for your comments. My point was not that judges don't warrant any raises at all (and I will expand on my thoughts later.) It's that (a)the Court of Appeals was just silly to refuse to allow time to implement their ruling, which has huge economic implications, and (b)conversely, they are silly to argue that the fines and costs they impose on citizens--their economic impact--should factor into what they earn.