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JUDGES HAVE A CASE FOR PAY INCREASE . . .

Now that the elections are over, New York State taxpayers are being asked to pony up raises for judges in the state court system.

The raise sought by the judges would be about $20,000. The average per capita income in Buffalo last year, by comparison, was $18,059. New York's general-jurisdiction judges have the second-best pay in the country.

Despite that, New Yorkers should back raises for the judges. The question isn't whether these public servants should get raises -- it's how much.

Judges clearly deserve consideration when it comes to salary hikes this time around. There are demonstrated inequities in the judicial pay system, things that need to be fixed if quality is to be maintained in the courts.

A special state commission has recommended a pay hike of 19.5 percent across the board for all judges who get a state paycheck. Assembly Democrats have proposed a 21 percent increase.

The commission's proposal would hike the pay of a State Supreme Court Justice in Buffalo from $113,000 to $135,000. Erie County Court and Family Court judges would get $124,000 and the Erie County Surrogate would get $128,300. The salaries for similar posts in other Western New York counties would be a bit less, and town courts aren't covered at all by the system.

At first blush, that looks like a whopping pay raise. But judges haven't had a raise since 1993, and only one raise in the last 10 years. Jurists here don't expect another one for at least another five years.

The question of pay increases for judges involves more than economic fairness, however. Taxpayers are being asked to ensure that state judges receive the respect and dignity the office calls for. Now, most senior partners in law firms earn more than state judges; in New York City, inexperienced lawyers a half-dozen years out of law school can and often do make more than the judges they face. That's not right, and downright disastrous for long-term efforts to recruit high-quality lawyers to serve as judges.

Pay for federal district judges and State Supreme Court judges used to be about equal. Now, the judges in each federal district court earn $136,500 -- more than any state counterpart, including the state's chief judge.

There are state judges in this region who aren't worth the money they are paid now, let alone a pay hike. Giving them a raise is almost irksome enough to ruin the commission's case, a fact that judicial ethics and competence review boards might keep in mind.

But judges are part of a state system that ties the salary to the post, not the individual. Merit selection systems, like that proposed by the New York City-based Committee for Modern Courts, haven't yet offered convincing alternatives to the direct-election process. For now, a pay raise is the answer -- so long as another whopping one isn't sought anytime soon.

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