Inherit the Windfall

By Mark David Blum, Esq.

New York State judges have been at war with the State over salaries for several years. There have been orders from the State’s highest Court demanding that legislators raise judicial salaries. There is even a lawsuit pending where judges have sued for a pay raise. So far, judicial salaries have remained stagnant and legislators have taken no steps to increase judges six figure salaries.

So the court system came up with a unique end run around the pay raise issue. On Nov. 1, New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman doubled the expense allowances for his judges to $10,000 a year each. This is a gift which can be taken as either reimbursement for presumed expenses incurred by judges in the performance of their official duties or as a lump sum payment. Yes, it is taxable.

Among those itemized expenses apparently necessary to the business of judging are meditation retreats, framed photographs of themselves, and a $233 Apple iPod Touch. There was $1,665 for the cost of an entire table at a May dinner of the Metropolitan Black Bar Association, $2,878.40 to travel to Cuba in late September with the National Association of Women Judges for what one attendee reportedly called a fact-finding vacation, a $260 claim for a Poland Springs water cooler for chambers, a one-year, $127 New York Times subscription delivered to a judge’s home, and a $290 room air purifier bought on Home Shopping Network. Judges can continue to submit these expenses and seek reimbursement or they can just take the entire $10,000.00 as a lump sum and submit no itemized list of expenditures. Overall, this pay bonus will cost the state $12.6 million dollars a year.

As a lawyer and member of the Bar, I appreciate efforts 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 or 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. Currently, salaries range from $108,800 for a full-time city court judge to $136,700 for a state Supreme Court justice to the chief judge's $156,000. Judges who cannot thrive and survive on the pay and benefits package 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 Office of Court Administration that decides for itself that a $10,000.00 gift is mandated as a matter of law.

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