The Chief Judge of the State of New York is contemplating suing the State of New York. Several trial judges have already brought a lawsuit against the governor and legislature. And judges from Brooklyn to Buffalo are planning to march on Albany on May 1.
These unprecedented actions are last-ditch efforts to achieve an item dropped from the 2007 state budget in the final hours of negotiations: pay raises for judges.
WHY JUDGES SAY THEY DESERVE A RAISE
New York State Supreme Court justices are paid $136,700 a year; upstate Family Court and other judges receive $119,000 or less.
Although these salaries are higher than that of many New Yorkers, judges, with seven or more years of higher education, have given up far more lucrative opportunities that go along with careers in the legal profession. Major New York City law firms pay close to $200,000 to recent law school graduates who have not even passed the bar exam; federal trial judges are paid $162,500 and are expecting a salary increase; corporate law firm partners enjoy seven figure incomes plus bonuses.
New York judicial salaries are among the lowest in the nation. The state’s judges have had only two salary increases in the last 20 years, the last one eight years ago. Since then, the cost-of-living has risen by 26 percent.
Chief Judge Judith Kaye recently declared the situation to be "disgraceful," "devastating," "a crisis," and "an emergency."
WHY JUDGES HAVEN'T RECEIVED A PAY INCREASE
Editorials, good government groups and bar associations have all supported a pay increase. Governor Eliot Spitzer put increased judicial compensation into his proposed budget. But the governor, along with legislative leaders Sheldon Silver and Joseph Bruno, shut the judiciary out of the budget negotiations.
Legislators have decided that judges will get a raise only if they can also give themselves a pay boost. But since there is no public support for pay raises for legislators - who have been widely described as "dysfunctional" - judges are not getting one either. Meanwhile, Spitzer has said that, while he supports raises for judges, he opposes a pay raise for members of the State Senate and Assembly.
Albany lawmakers work part-time and are free to practice law or engage in other business, options prohibited for judges. In fact all three men who are holding up judicial pay increases enjoy income from other sources. Eliot Spitzer's 2006 income from his midtown Manhattan real estate holdings, alone, was almost $2 million. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has a lucrative law practice, details of which have not been disclosed, and Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno a number of business dealings.
The three branches of government -- executive, legislative and judicial -- are meant to be equal, but the judiciary contends that the other two are interfering with judicial independence by withholding fair compensation. A lawsuit could challenge the legislature’s hold on the judiciary but it would take years to be resolved.
WHY IT MATTERS FOR NEW YORK
For the low-earners of the legal profession, living in New York City has become a daunting challenge. Many judges, who went to law school with the dream of serving the public from the bench and rejected opportunities to follow the money, now question that decision.
Every day judges throughout the state accept the profound responsibilities of deciding who is imprisoned and who goes free, deciding when a feeding tube should be discontinued, and deciding who should have custody of a child. Such work is essential to a democratic, civilized society.
The risk the public and the judiciary face is that only lawyers with independent wealth will become judges, causing severe damage to diversity and to a bench that reflects the community.
Emily Jane Goodman is a New York State Supreme Court justice. She frequently writes on the law.
Emily Jane Goodman is a New York State Supreme Court JusticeÂ