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by Jay Gallagher

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

High court sides with judges

The state’s highest court ruled today that the Legislature should give judges a raise. But the reaction from a legislative leader indicates the jurists shouldn’t spend the money just yet.
The Court of Appeals decided, by a 5-1 vote, that the failure of lawmakers to raise judicial pay for 11 years violates the separation-of-powers clause of the state Constitution.
“We conclude that the independence of the judiciary is improperly jeopardized by the current judicial-pay crisis and that this constitutes a violation of the separation-of-powers doctrine,’’ Judge Eugene Piggott wrote for the majority.
The pay for 1,300 state judges has been frozen since January 1999, largely because lawmakers have tied judges’ salaries to their own, and any step to raise the pay of the Legislature has been considered politically risky.
State trial-level judges make $136,700 a year - a figure that 11 years ago matched that of federal District Court judges, but has since fallen far behind. The base pay of lawmakers is $79,500, although all 61 senators and about two-thirds of the 150 members of the Assembly get extra pay for so-called “leadership’’ and committee posts.
But the Court of Appeals judges today stopped short of mandating that the Legislature raise the pay of judges any time soon.
“Whether judicial compensation should be adjusted, and by how much, is within the province of the Legislature,’’ Piggott wrote. But since the current situation violates the constitution, “We therefore expect appropriate and expeditious legislative consideration.’’
However, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, who in the past has blocked judicial pay raises in the absence of any agreement to hike the salaries of lawmakers, pointed out that “the decision does not mandate any action by the Legislature at this time.’’
He added that he agreed that the pay should be raised, and that “The Assembly will consider this matter when economic conditions improve.’’
In other words, don’t hold your breath.

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