Judges under stress

December 23, 1991

Last week's decision by state Court of Appeals judges to allow district and circuit court judges to choose between giving up five vacation days or returning a week's salary to ease the state's budget crisis was reasonable and wise.

Judges are given 27 paid vacation days a year, and during those periods the state must hire retired judges to fill in for them: The volume of cases is such that the system simply would break down if courtrooms stood empty whenever a regular judge was out. Since the substitute judges must be paid for their time, the initial plan envisioned cutting vacation days for regular judges as a way of saving on the cost of their replacements.

Problems arose, however, because while the district court judges generally were inclined to go along with this scheme, circuit court judges, who try a majority of the serious criminal cases, balked. They argued that they already are under a great deal of stress and that lost vacation time could have a serious health impact. Instead, they proposed giving back a week's salary, which would save roughly the same amount of money. The appeals court accepted that proposal last Thursday.

That was the right decision. As state employees, judges certainly ought to share in the belt-tightening imposed on other government workers -- including the courthouse employees they oversee. But there's no reason to ask them do so in a way that could provoke a total meltdown of an already overburdened system.

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