Judicial Pay Raise This Sunday

March 30, 2012 Brooklyn Eagle Staff
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This Is Not an April Fools’ Day Joke;

After 13 Years, Judicial Salary Increase Is Reality 

Brooklyn Supreme Court Judges Begin Making $160K

on April 1; Bar Leaders Say Not Enough $$$

News for those who live, work and play in Brooklyn and beyond

By Ryan Thompson

Brooklyn Daily Eagle

BROOKLYN — This Sunday, while the doors of the Kings County Supreme Court remain closed to litigants and employees, a long-awaited event will quietly occur in the judiciary, after years of fighting with legislators, lawsuits and loud complaints.

This Sunday, while state Supreme Court judges will be off the bench, perhaps home with family, or attending church for Palm Sunday, something that these judges have been waiting 13 years for will finally occur. This Sunday, judges will finally get their pay raise.

The state’s Special Commission on Judicial Compensation voted in August last year to increase the annual salaries of state Supreme Court justices from $136,700 to $160,000 in 2012, $167,000 in 2013 and $174,000 in 2014.

The commission’s recommendations will take effect Sunday, April 1, unless the state Legislature affirmatively modifies or rejects them by that date. The Legislature has not done so, nor is there any indication that it will do so today or tomorrow.

Surely, after over a decade, some of the judges will remain suspicious and skeptical that something could go awry before Sunday. Until the clock strikes 12, or 12:01 a.m., in fact, many judges still might not believe it. And then, even then, it’s only April Fools’ Day, after all.

But April Fool, there is not.  

On Tuesday, a state budget proposal that includes a $2.3 billion spending plan proposal from the Office of Court Administration was approved by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state legislators. That plan includes $28 million set aside for judicial pay raises for the approximate 1,300 state trial judges.

Every possible indication suggests that state judges will arrive to court on Monday, making $160,000 salaries.

$$$ Not Enough?

Still, many judges, lawyers, and bar leaders say it’s not enough.

Last summer, after the commission released its figures for the proposed salary increases, the Brooklyn Bar Association, along with the city and state bars, called the planned judicial pay raise inadequate.

Brooklyn Bar Association President Ethan Gerber called the pay raise “absurd,” saying that the salary increase is not near what the judges deserve.

“These judges have not had a raise in 12 years,” Gerber said in August. “It’s absurd that any raise given after 12 years is not commensurate with the work that is required of them.”

Gerber cited the judges’ dedication, education, and cost of living as reasons why New York’s judges deserve more than the $160,000 to $174,000 the judges will receive in the next several years. He said that the judges, who make less than lawyers at private law firms and some first-year associate attorneys, still have to face the same cost of living as everyone else.

“We’re losing good judges who are going into the private sector,” Gerber said.

The city bar responded similarly in August with a statement.

“While the New York City Bar Association appreciates that the judicial compensation commission approved the first increase in New York judicial salaries in 13 years, we are disappointed at the size of the increase,” city bar President Samuel Seymour said. “We believe a substantially greater salary increase is both justified and appropriate.”

And the state bar issued a lengthy statement justifying why judges deserve more money.

After the announcement in August, New York State Bar Association President Vincent E. Doyle III immediately expressed concern that the commission’s approval of a salary adjustment for New York’s judges was too modest.

“During the past 12 years, the cost-of-living increased by 40 percent, eroding judicial salaries. Yet the commission voted to adjust judicial salaries by only 17 percent in 2012,” Doyle said. By 2014, the third year of the phase-in, judges salaries will have risen 27 percent over a 15-year period, far less than the projected inflation rate.

“Salary stagnation is more than a personal hardship for judges. It threatens to undermine our judiciary, making it harder to attract and retain talented judges,” Doyle said. “New York’s judiciary has a well-regarded national and international reputation. We put that reputation at stake if we continue to devalue our judiciary by not adjusting judges’ salaries.”

Judges are leaving the bench voluntarily in record numbers, according to a recent New York Times article, the state bar said. In 1999, 48 of the state’s 1,300 judges resigned. In 2011, 110 quit the bench. “Judicial pay scales should not be so inadequate that they encourage top judges to resign, or deter highly qualified attorneys from seeking judgeships,” Doyle noted.

Doyle said he was also disappointed that the commission called for phasing in the adjustment over three years.

“Judges have waited long enough,” he said. “We recognize the state’s fiscal problems and that many New Yorkers have been forced to sacrifice. For judges, the sacrifice has been particularly long and onerous. Since 1999, in good economic times and bad, judges’ salaries have not increased even by one cent.”

Future Funds?

The Special Commission on Judicial Compensation is an independent body tasked with examining, evaluating and making binding recommendations with respect to judicial compensation for New York state’s judges. It was created by a measure signed into law by then Gov. David Paterson in 2010.

Every four years, beginning April 1, 2011, and on, a new commission will be established with seven appointed members. Three are designated by the governor, two by the chief judge of the New York State Court of Appeals, one by the president pro tempore of the state Senate and one by the speaker of the state Assembly.

The commission’s current members are chairman Bill Thompson, Rick Cotton, Bill Mulrow, Robert Fiske Jr., Kathryn S. Wylde, Mark Mulholland and James Tallon Jr.

In a report issued in July, the state bar association called for raising salaries of state Supreme Court justices from $136,700 to $192,000, to reflect the increase in the cost of living since 1999.

The New York City Bar Association actually recommended salaries of at least $195,000, with the New York County Lawyers’ Association (NYCLA) recommending that justices receive annual salaries between $190,000 and $196,000.

U.S. federal judges make $174,000 per year.

In 1977, the state government became responsible for funding the newly created Unified Court System. Since then, judicial pay raises have been infrequent.

“A pattern of long periods of salary stagnation [were] interrupted by occasional ‘catch-up’ increases,” the state bar association report says.

Thus, the report notes, “A judge serving since 1995 has received only one pay increase, in 1999. A judge serving since 1988 — 23 years ago — has received only two salary adjustments, in 1993 and 1999, while seeing inflation dramatically erode his or her salary.”

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