As temperatures soared into the triple digits last week, the decade-long battle over raises for state judges also began to heat up.
The 1,200-plus judges who sit on county, surrogate, family, and supreme courts across New York have not received raises since 1999, when their pay was increased to $136,700. That's largely because their salaries were tied to those of state lawmakers, who have found it politically untenable to give themselves raises.
But that bind was broken by a law passed last year which also called for the creation of a seven-member panel, called the Commission on Judicial Compensation, tasked with making recommendations regarding how big of a raise judges deserve. The group held a public hearing in Albany last week, where many of the three dozen speakers sounded personal pleas and insisted the very integrity of New York's courts are in jeopardy.
The issue, perhaps, is particularly acute in New York City and the lower Hudson Valley, where the cost of living is considerably higher than upstate and, many argue, a $136,000 salary does not reflect the unique work judges do and belies a degree of disrespect for the bench.
Judge Francis Nicolai, who sits on the Supreme Court for the Ninth Judicial District, which includes Putnam, Rockland, Westchester, Dutchess and Orange counties, told the DisPatch that his clerk and many young attorneys fresh out of law school make more money than him and his colleagues.
"It's absurd, and it's political," said Nicolai, who first became a judge in 1982.
Nicolai, 72, said he's "lucky" that his children are all grown, but many younger judges are concerned they won't be able to put their kids through college or save for retirement.
"I'm angry, not about the money, but about the disrespect shown to judges," he said, adding that continuing to keep judicial pay low will discourage bright young lawyers from becoming judges.
Statistics from the state Office of Court Administration show that the rate of judicial resignations has skyrocketed from less than 5 percent per year to 10 percent per year over the last decade. A recent New York Times article highlighted the increasingly common exodus of judges into private practice, where they can earn seven-figure incomes.
Hanging over the commission's deliberations are the state's dire fiscal circumstances. After closing a $10 billion deficit this year, officials are facing a $2.4 billion gap in 2012. At last week's hearing, Budget Director Robert Megna said the state simply can't afford the raises.
"We don't even have the ability to finance the spending commitments that are already in place," said Megna, who was speaking on behalf of Governor Andrew Cuomo, who appointed three of the commission's seven members.
Megna pointed out that while many state workers have received consistent raises in recent years, others—including the governor, lawmakers and agency heads—have seen their salaries remain stagnant. Further, he said, raising judges' pay significantly "could skew the entire system" of pay for public workers.
But those advocating for raises rejected the economic argument. Ann Pfau, the state's chief administrative judge, said a proposal to raise salaries by 41 percent would cost the state $58 million—about 58 one-thousandths of one percent of the state's total spending. She also said the state has saved $500 million since 1999 by not giving raises to jurists.
A number of proposals have been presented. One is to give judges a 41-percent raise to reflect the increase in the cost of living since 1999, which would bring salaries to $192,700; others are calling for "full and fair" raises of 67 percent, which would mean a salary close to $230,000. Some more austere experts have proposed raising salaries to $174,000—the current pay for federal judges, who have not received raises in three years.
And still others, including a handful of the three dozen people who testified at last week's hearing, are calling for a complete rejection of judicial raises until the state's court system is overhauled to root out corruption and waste.
"There must be no increases in judicial compensation until mechanisms are in place to remove justices who deliberately pervert the rule of law," said Elena Sassower, the head of the White Plains-based Center for Judicial Accountability.
Sassower and others say the state's judicial watchdog, the Commission on Judicial Conduct, has been tainted by corruption and greater accountability is needed.
The Commission on Judicial Compensation is expected to release its findings August 29; its recommendations will take effect on April 1, 2012, unless they are overturned by the state legislature.