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Politics interferes with fair compensation for judges

As reported in The Buffalo News last month, it was a great relief to many city employees that the Buffalo control board agreed to lift a three-year old wage freeze.

Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore was quoted in the newspaper as saying that a teacher hired in 2003 would be deprived of more than $113,000 in pay over 36 years if he or she was not compensated for the increments lost during the wage freeze.

Going three years without a pay raise has devastating consequences, both immediately with less disposable income and over a period of time in lost benefits and increments.
Imagine the drastic consequences if a raise were not given for nine years -- exactly the position that New York State judges find themselves in. New York's part-time legislators are the second-highest paid in the nation. New York's full-time state judges, on the other hand, are the second-lowest paid in the nation.

Additionally in New York, lawmakers have used a pay raise for judges as cover to raise their own salary. However, if there is any sign of a voter backlash, as there has been in recent years, lawmakers drop any talk of a pay raise for themselves and, as a result, judges must do without one, too.

How bad is it in New York? According to the National Center for State Courts, judicial salaries in New York not only rank second lowest in the nation, but judges here earn thousands less than other public employees.

It is also well known that new law school graduates earn far more when entering a Wall Street firm than the justices they will be appearing in front of.

The New York State court system had high hopes when Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer took office because he was elected as a reformer.

In fact, however, Spitzer has taken the judicial pay raise game to a new level by linking raises for judges to the Legislature's approval of campaign finance reform. Although his motives are admirable, why use judicial pay raises as a pawn to get campaign reform?
The goal of both the governor and the Legislature should be to remove judicial pay from the political arena. The best way to do that is to pass legislation that calls not only for retroactive pay increases, but also for a commission to examine and set judicial salaries that will be indexed to inflation in future years.
That is what is done in the federal system. That is also why federal district judges earn substantially more than New York State judges, although nine years ago, both earned approximately the same.

Politics in Albany must change. Linking bills together as leverage is an old tactic, but Spitzer has the opportunity to set things right. All he has to do is call for a judicial pay raise bill to stand on its own merits.
Ralph A. Boniello III is president of the Supreme Court Justices Association, Eighth Judicial District.1

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