ANNAPOLIS -- Heeding the pleas of judges who said they'd rather turn salary back to the state during the budget crisis than give up vacation days, the Maryland Court of Appeals voted last night to let the judges choose either option.
"We were never against helping," said Joseph H. H. Kaplan, Baltimore Circuit Court administrative judge. "It was the form we objected to."
Last week, in an effort to save $7 million in the Maryland judiciary's $150 million budget this fiscal year, Chief Judge Robert C. Murphy sent a letter to the state's judges asking them to give up five of the 27 paid vacation days they are allowed each year. In addition to their vacation days, the judges can take three personal-leave days annually.
Judge Murphy said such a gesture by the judges would give the state "1,200 more judge days," reduce the money he spends hiring retired judges to fill in on the bench and help make up for judgeships he is leaving vacant to save money.
"This is an emergency," Judge Murphy said, referring to soaring state deficits. "This is a crisis."
But some judges, including members of the Baltimore Circuit bench, objected loudly, saying every vacation day is critical to an overworked
judge when court dockets are expanding and stress is increasing.
"Baltimore City is a pressure-cooker," Judge Kaplan told the judges of the Court of Appeals, who met yesterday to hear judges' opinions and then vote on the proposal to reduce leave.
"My judges are running at triple speed," said Judge Kaplan, who suggested the alternative of allowing judges to give a week's salary back to the state.
"If you bust the morale of the judges, you certainly aren't going to get any more production," Baltimore Circuit Judge David Ross said of the proposal to give back vacation days.
"I think this proposal sends the wrong message," said Baltimore County Circuit Judge J. William Hinkel. "It implies we're not working hard enough.
"When I heard of this [proposal], I felt like I'd been a bad boy or something. I haven't been a bad boy, and I don't deserve this punishment."
"Taking away our stress medicine will not save a single penny," Judge Hinkel added, "but it will cause stress-related illnesses."
Some judges supported the proposal. District Court Chief Judge Robert F. Sweeney said 87 of his judges approved of Judge Murphy's suggestion that they forgo leave time, with five judges opposed.
Saving money through increased time on the bench, Judge Sweeney said, could save the jobs of court clerks and administrators.
After more than two hours of discussion, the judges of the Court of Appeals voted to give judges the option.