In these perilous economic times, when elected officials are trying to bridge record budget deficits, it would have been easy for Governor Cuomo and other state officials to ignore the compensation crisis in New York’s courts. The state’s judges hadn’t received a pay raise since the last millennium, and many observers of the criminal justice system warned that judges were beginning to leave the system for better-paid positions in private law firms.
Fortunately, the state has chosen to take action rather than risk chaos in the courtroom. By a 4-3 vote, a special state commission recently granted pay increases of some 27 percent over three years to state judges. The raises will cost the state about $50 million in annual personnel costs once they are fully implemented. The State Supreme Court justices, who are New York’s top trial judges, will see their pay increase from $136,000 per year to $174,000 after three years.
Truth be told, many judges were hoping for a bigger increase, but the commission also had to consider political realities. Governor Cuomo made it clear that he believed the judges deserved more pay, but he also sent a message that the increase had to be relatively modest. The governor appointed three members of the seven-member commission. His appointees, along with Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s representative, provided the votes necessary to implement the raises.
Did the judges deserve a higher raise? Perhaps. After all, they hadn’t received an increase in 12 years—not since George Pataki’s second term as governor. But as Mr. Cuomo wisely realized, a substantial raise, however well deserved, would have sent the wrong message at the wrong time. Albany cannot preach fiscal restraint and urge patience while it is handing out hefty pay increases to judges.
Top-flight judges are a vital part of New York’s successful war on crime. The governor and the speaker deserve credit for choosing appointees who understood the importance of judicious pay hikes.