Paying judges

March 07, 2005

THE GENERAL Assembly is being pretty tight-fisted about proposed pay raises for state judges. Ignoring recommendations from its own Judicial Compensation Commission, the legislature would give some judges even less than the cost-of-living increase most other state employees are slated to get. With so many other lucrative opportunities for lawyers, the Assembly's proposed action is woefully shortsighted.

Maryland's judges have not had a raise since 2002. Currently, the salaries range from about $112,250 for a District Court or trial judge to about $151,350 for the chief judge of the Court of Appeals. The Judicial Compensation Commission, which was created by the legislature and chaired by former state Sen. Laurence Levitan, recommended graduated salary increases from $15,000 to $30,000 total, phased in over four years.

The commission argued that the increases were feasible because of the state's improving financial condition, and necessary for Maryland to keep pace with nearby states such as Delaware, Pennsylvania and Virginia. In addition, there is concern about attracting more candidates with "diversity and depth of experience," especially candidates from the private sector with firsthand knowledge of business and technology issues.

But the House and Senate each offered proposals that would increase salaries over four years by a total of about $1,500 to $7,500. In a strange reversal, both chambers would give appellate judges a smaller salary boost than trial judges, at least initially. That means a Court of Appeals judge could get a maximum $2,500 raise starting in July 2005, or about $500 less than he or she would get from the proposed cost-of-living increase.

Neither chamber has done right by the judges, and the proposed increases seem downright stingy. But even if the legislature cannot meet the commission's recommendations, coming closer to those figures would be far more acceptable.

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