Lawmakers question pay raises for judges

They note tight budget, 2% increases for others

January 31, 2002|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Lawmakers greeted proposals to give pay raises to Maryland's judges and top elected officials with skepticism yesterday, noting the state's tight budget and the small raises being given to other employees.

"Why should we give the judges a big raise and only give state employees 2 percent?" asked Del. Frank S. Turner, a Howard County Democrat. "That's a question I'll have to go back and answer. You put us in a difficult position, especially this year, by making this request.

Commissions appointed to study the salaries say the increases are crucial if Maryland wants to attract well-qualified candidates for the judiciary and top elected offices.

"We're not trying to give judges the same compensation as in private law firms," said former Sen. Laurence Levitan, who was chairman of the judicial compensation commission. "But we need to make improvements."

The General Assembly is considering a variety of pay increases this year, including a recommendation to increase the salaries of delegates and senators. All of the proposals could face tough scrutiny, because this is an election year and because of severe revenue shortfalls in the state budget.

Under the judicial commission's proposal, the state's 274 judges would receive 5 percent salaries increases, effective Jan. 1. They also would be entitled to the 2 percent cost-of-living raises for all state employees in the governor's budget proposal.

A Circuit Court judge's salary would increase from $119,600 to $128,200, and a District Court judge's salary would go from $111,500 to $119,500.

Court of Appeals and Court of Special Appeals judges also would receive 5 percent increases. The salaries of a number of other positions -- including the state prosecutor, the public defender, members of the Workers' Compensation Committee and some local state's attorneys -- also would go up because they're tied to judicial-pay increases.

The salary increases are important because it's becoming more difficult for lawyers in private practice to consider seeking judgeships, said Pamela J. White, president of the Maryland State Bar Association. The pay "has a chilling effect to both the applications and continued service on the bench," she said.

Some members of the House Appropriations Committee questioned whether 5 percent salary increases would make a significant difference when first-year lawyers enter large city law firms making $100,000 or more, and experienced lawyers earn far more.

"It seems to me you're never going to compete with the private sector, nor do you want to," said Del. C. Richard D'Amato, an Anne Arundel County Democrat. "Either people are interested in public service, or they're not."

In a separate hearing before the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, the chairman of the governor's salary committee said it has been 12 years since the governor was given a raise, up to $120,000 a year.

The commission is proposing that the governor's salary be increased to $150,000 over the next four years and that the lieutenant governor's pay be increased from $100,000 to $125,000. The salaries of elected officials are permitted to increase only with the start of a new term of office.

"The Assembly doesn't have to vote on any of the pay proposals, whether judicial, gubernatorial or legislative. Without action or amendments, the raises automatically go into effect within 50 days of their introduction as joint resolutions.

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