Court balances and checks

Our view : No big raises next year, but Maryland judicial salaries merit a second look

December 30, 2008

Here's a word of advice for Maryland judges: Don't count on a raise in 2009. In a matter of weeks, the General Assembly is going to face a choice of whether to increase judicial salaries $3 million a year. Considering the plight of the economy and the state budget, it's difficult to envision the legislators offering the bench anything more than their thanks and a hearty handshake.

This is not the fault of the judges or of the commission that meets every four years to review judicial salaries. The group's soon-to-be-released recommendation to raise them by nearly $40,000 a year is based on a quite reasonable argument that Maryland's judicial pay should be comparable to other states' and the federal bench. It also should allow Maryland to attract the best and most diverse array possible of judicial candidates.

This is not to suggest that judges here will ever make more money than the top-gun lawyers who appear before them. That's simply not the nature of public service. But Maryland residents are best served if the best possible candidates can afford to take such a critical job. The role of judge ought not preclude highly able people of modest means.

Past Judicial Compensation Commissions have come up with similar findings. Usually the result is a salary increase of 2.5 percent to 4 percent per year. While a District Court judge's salary of $127,252 per year would seem generous, it pales by comparison with what litigators and judges in other states earn. When adjusted for the local cost of living, a Maryland trial court judge's salary ranks in the bottom five of the 50 states.

Judges will no doubt recognize that the commission's timing could hardly be worse. There's a particularly painful recession going on, and average folks are losing their jobs. Tax revenues are down, and Gov. Martin O'Malley is paring spending by staggering amounts.

Maryland judges are moving to do their share. The Court of Appeals is meeting this morning to review changes to the judiciary's leave policy that will allow members of the bench to, in effect, take the same five unpaid furlough days that other state employees are required to take. But this is not an appropriate solution for the long term. As salaries fall behind, the quality of judicial candidates is likely to diminish. The loss will be subtle but enduring. Problems of court vacancies and workload will likely grow worse.

Recognizing this, the commission's chairwoman has suggested that the legislature authorize her group to reconvene next year and propose a revised report for the 2010 legislative session. This is an entirely sensible solution. While we are not usually inclined to defer important policy decisions, the circumstances are atypical, and we would recommend lawmakers support her request.

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