Some Judges Unhappy with 27 Percent Pay Raise

10:21 PM, Nov 21, 2012   |    comments
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ALBANY -- Some judges in New York aren't satisfied with their 27 percent raise over the next three years.

Several top judges, mainly in New York City, said the salary increase to $174,000 by 2014 is not enough. Another set of judges is pushing forward with a lawsuit to seek retroactive pay after a salary freeze from 1999 to this year.

Others are pounding their gavels for losing a $10,000-a-year stipend they had received since 2009 to offset the salary stalemate. With a raise last April, the state Office of Court Administration quietly ended the stipends this year.

 "We didn't get a raise for 13 years. And then when you get the raise, it's grossly inadequate," said Brooklyn Family Court Judge Daniel Turbow, who is president of the New York City Family Court Judges Association.

"It does not even come close to meeting the rate of inflation. So it's really unfair, fundamentally unfair. And the chamber's allowance is independent of that," he said.

Some upstate judges said that in a difficult economic climate, they are pleased to have gotten a raise. They are not bothered that the $10,000 stipend, or the so-called chamber allowance, has ended.

"I'm a public servant. I knew what I was getting into. I love this job. I love serving the people," said Matthew Rosenbaum, a state Supreme Court judge in Rochester. "I think everybody who has a job is very fortunate given the current economy."

Salary increases for the state's 1,200 judges had been tied to raises for the state Legislature. Lawmakers haven't had a pay raise since 1999 either, but the state agreed to set up a judicial compensation committee in 2010 to address the judges' raises.

The committee last year recommended phasing in a 27 percent pay hike for state judges between 2012 and 2014. The Legislature didn't object, and the judges got their first raise this year -- an increase from $136,700 to $160,000 for state Supreme Court judges.

 The salaries will increase by $7,000 next year and then to $174,000 in 2014 -- on par with federal district court judges.

The state courts system last year initially sought a pay raise of up to 62 percent, but the Cuomo administration said it should be pared back.

Some judges said the initial pay increase sought by the courts, which would have pushed salaries to as high as $220,836, would have made up for the loss of wages and inflation over the 13 years without a raise.

Lawmakers, who receive a base salary of $79,500, would have to approve a legislative raise before a new Legislature takes office in January. But they aren't expected back in Albany before January to do so.

Judges have argued that their pay scale makes it difficult to attract quality candidates to the bench. For New York City judges, the cost of living is much higher than in upstate.

 "When you consider the amount of money that a judge earns is less than the opening salary of a person that hasn't even passed the bar exam, just out of law school, at any one of the big firms, take that into consideration," said Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Eileen Bransten.

A group of judges is appealing a state Supreme Court ruling in September that dismissed a lawsuit that sought retroactive pay during the salary freeze.

The Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, ruled in February 2010 that the state Legislature was wrong to tie judicial pay raises to legislative business, but ultimately said the Legislature had the power to either grant raises or not.

The lawsuit argues that judges lost about 40 percent of their salaries because of inflation during the pay freeze. "The raise, even after the third raise has been given, will be far less than the erosion owing to the increased cost of living through that period," the judges' lawyer, Thomas Bezanson, said.

"The raise that was recommended by the compensation commission and adopted by the Legislature is a step in the right direction, but it's really less than half a loaf."

A review by Gannett's Albany Bureau in April 2011 found that judges in some cases used the $10,000 stipend to buy iPads, GPS systems and expensive robes.

Ontario County Judge Craig Doran, the administrative judge for the 7th Judicial District in the Rochester area, said judges realized that the stipends would end once their salaries were increased.

"Judges understand the fiscal realities," Doran said. "We probably understand them better than most because we're dealing with cases that come to us in large part as a result of some of the fiscal difficulties that are being experienced in our communities."  

Joseph Spector/Gannett Albany Bureau Chief

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