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Lawmakers hear judges’ case for higher pay

ANNAPOLIS — Maryland’s 284 judges are in desperate need of a raise, Court of Appeals Judge Clayton Greene Jr. told the House Appropriations Committee Tuesday.

Greene testified in support of a resolution to raise all judicial salaries by $29,000 over the next four years — up to 23 percent for some by 2016 — and said increases were needed to keep top talent on the bench.

“If you adjust for judge’s salaries by the cost of living index, Maryland ranks 43rd in the nation,” said Greene.

Greene said the private sector and judiciaries in Delaware, D.C., Virginia and Pennsylvania lure away talent with higher pay. He said many judges with college-bound kids consider the private sector because of looming tuition bills.

“It’s not fair, nor it is a way to run a judiciary,” Greene said. “I’m suggesting we pay them a more reasonable salary. Even a cost of living increase every two years would be better than what we have now.”

Maryland judges last received a raise in 2006. Under the current resolution, salaries will remain at the current level for fiscal 2013, then increase 23 percent by 2016. The legislature has 50 days to reject or amend the resolution or the increases are automatic.

The legislature rejected the recommended pay hikes in 2009 and 2010, years in which state employees got temporary pay cuts through furloughs.

The increase will cost Maryland taxpayers $14 million, according to the fiscal note from the Department of Legislative Services. District Court judges would see an increase from $127,000 to $156,000 by 2016. A chief judge on the Court of Appeals would jump from $180,000 to $210,000.

Elizabeth Buck, chair of the Judicial Compensation Committee, said a study conducted by the commission showed first year lawyers can command up to $160,000 from firms in the Baltimore-Washington region. A chief judge in the Court of Special Appeals earns $153,000.

Lack of private-sector applicants

A past president of the Maryland State Bar Association, Cornelius Helfrich, expressed concern about the quality of applicants and their backgrounds. He lamented to the committee that the majority of new applicants come from existing government pools and lack the “leavening effect” that comes from private sector experience.

“There is a noticeable increase in government employees applying for consideration as a judge,” said Helfrich, who’s been in private practice for 45 years. “That’s a troubling trend. They’ve never made a payroll or had a client who was threatening to sue them. “

Helfrich said the applicant pool should come from private and public sector backgrounds.

Greene told the committee that the judiciary had an average age of 50. Judges can retire at 60 after 16 years of service.

“More and more judges will leave the bench unless they are assured their pay will not be stagnant if the stay on,” Greene said.

Del. Mary Washington, D-Baltimore City, agreed that compensation for judges was important, but she took issue with Greene and Helfrich that salary was the only tool to attract top talent. She said graduates from top universities work for public interest groups at significantly less pay.

“Their salaries come nowhere near $140,000 a year,” Washington said. “These are excellent people who’ve made a choice.”

One comment

  1. The idea that money is a major determinant of quality lawyers seeking to join the bench is laughable. The judicial pay, benefit, and pension system is incredibly generous, especially considering how much better and more predictable the working hours are as compared to private practice. It doesn’t hurt that there is no oversight whatsoever of the bench, allowing incompetence and poor behavior to go without any kind of scrutiny or punishment, though this may also explain the attractiveness of the job to public employees.

    If there is a problem with the bench, it is the drudgery and mis-alignment of talent that goes on. If the state wants to attract better talent to the trial bench, the GA should separate the criminal bench from the civil bench and move family court to district court for the major counties and baltimore city. Get the criminal attorneys out of civil, and create an inviting avenue for experienced civil attorneys to bring their expertise to the bench without having to pay their dues by handling family and low level criminal matters.

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