Inherit the Wind, not the Windfall

By Mark David Blum, Esq.

A New York State Appeals Court ordered the New York legislature to give raises to the state’s judges. Arguing that the legislature has abused its’ discretion in not awarding pay raises to judges, the Court gave the State ninety days to raise salaries by nearly $40,000.00. Of course, an appeal is planned but it will be New York judges who decide that appeal.

As a lawyer and member of the Bar, I appreciate efforts to of the judiciary. As a taxpayer and attorney who has to function in that same system, I am offended at the effort to raise judicial salaries without first attacking waste and demanding greater productivity. If the Courts want to better pay their employees, then we as consumers deserve better. Allow me to use the “F” bombs – Fundamental and Fairness – that is the issue.

There is not an attorney in this town or indeed a civilian who has had any experience with the civil or criminal justice system who could not identify tons of waste of time, resources, and personnel. Our voices are not listened to and only what is seen as the closed circle of political ‘old boys’ make changes for their convenience. At the same time, people stand around in hallways for hours and calendars are getting more cluttered, our own Chief Administrative Judge spent millions of dollars to raise the roof of a local Court House to make it all shiny and pretty and looking new again. There seems to be plenty of funding to create new patronage jobs. Somebody should raise the roof; that’s for sure.

Even more offensive to me is the rationale given to support a raise in pay. Frankly, judges who cannot thrive and survive on the pay and benefits package offered to each, should leave the Bench. Not only will this draw more idealistic persons over patronage, but it will clear the pipelines to enable fresher perspectives and attitudes on the law to filter upward.

Indeed, law school professors and big shot big city lawyers make more in salary that do judges. But what smugness drives a person to think that just because they don the robe, they are suddenly of the tenure deserving of pay of the top rungs of society? I invite any sitting judge or justice at any level of court to show that not only are they qualified for a law school deanship or wall street partnership, but actually have the choice to accept such a position if their judicial salaries are not raised.

Also omitted from the discussion is what I call ‘deferred pay’. This is the lifelong full pension and retirement, full family medical and dental, and incredible benefits that most people can only dream about. Making “only” a hundred thirty six thousand dollars a year is one thing. When you add into that the million or two in retirement benefits, worry about underpaid judges evaporates.

There might be more credibility to the argument that judges deserve to be paid at the same level as professors and wall streeters if the State’s system of selecting Judges were to be fair. The current system locks out those who are not politically in favor and only rewards those most loyal to party. No member of the Bar that I know fully agrees that every person sitting on the bench at any level of court deserves that job. Many good men and women serve as great judges. I respect and admire so many of them for the hard work and conscientious effort they make. Their hearts and intelligence and integrity are beyond question. But, in the back of our minds, there always remains the question whether they are indeed the most qualified person for the job or are they sitting there thanks to years of quid pro quo.

Being a judge is not a right; it is a civic duty. When someone takes job, it should not be for the remuneration, but for the honor of filling that robe and a place in history.

With all due respect, the Courts are the last line of defense against a corrupt and evil government. Congress legislates the will of the majority. The Executive implements the laws. But, the Courts are the guardian of the individual and the rights and privileges accorded him in the Constitution. Apparently, in their minds, the judges that currently sit on that hallowed bench see themselves as civil servants. They are not. They are constitutional officers who, if they cannot do the job for the mere pittance of a salary of $136,700 a year, should get the hell out of the way for those whose goals and ideals are loftier than a paycheck. “Greed” is not the hallmark of Justice.

Someone has to stand up and demand a better product for the cost of the service provided. Judges should not be issuing fiats to the legislators to summarily raise their pay. Too many people in New York are homeless, hungy, and in dire need of precious few state resources. If any entity has abused its’ power, it is the Appeals court that decides for itself that a $40,000.00 raise is mandated as a matter of law.

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