Gov. Paterson signed a law Friday that creates a special commission to set pay raises for New York's 1,300 judges. It's a step in the right direction -- but far from adequate. Let's face it: Judges in this state haven't seen a raise since 1999, yet the salaries proposed by the commission won't go into effect until April 2012. So the law effectively extends judges' 11-year pay freeze for more than another year. Yet New York can't maintain its status as the financial capital of the world unless it maintains its world-class judiciary. Judges protect the property and contract rights that form the basis of all financial transactions. To ensure a strong commercial sector, the state needs to instill confidence in the quality of judicial proceedings -- and proper compensation is essential to retain and attract top judicial talent. The pay rate now is downright unfair. Judges are borrowing against their pensions in record numbers just to make ends meet. Here are the gory details: New York Supreme Court justices now earn $136,700, far less than the $174,000 their federal counterparts make. At $136,700, our Supreme Court justices, who on average have 18 years of work experience, earn far less than the "going rate" for first-year associate attorneys at the city's top law firms -- now $160,000 (plus bonus). Had New York state judges' salaries merely kept pace with inflation over the last 11 years, today they'd be earning more than $179,000. And yet, state courts handle the vast majority of all criminal and civil cases -- more than all the federal courts in the country combined, a staggering 4.7 million last year. The gap between federal and state judicial pay used to be the other way around. In 1909, New York state judges earned nearly triple what federal judges did; as recently as in 1935, a New York state judge earned 2½ times as much as his federal counterpart. (New York's 1935 judicial salary of $25,000 is equivalent to nearly $400,000 today after adjusting for inflation.) It wasn't until 1990 that federal judges' pay surpassed that of New York state judges.
In 1975, the National Center for State Courts ranked New York first among the 50 states on judicial pay. Today, after adjusting for New York's high cost of living, its rank has dropped to 49th. Not surprising, the state's unionized public workers don't suffer these problems. More than 1,250 public-school administrators, including elementary-school principals, earn more than Supreme Court justices. More than 400 retired New York state workers (mostly teachers) receive pensions greater than the salaries paid to active Supreme Court justices. Many of those pensions are well over $200,000 a year, and many retirees receive annual pensions greater than the judges' 1999 pay. Teachers have gotten better raises even after retiring than judges who've continued to work. The situation is so bleak because state legislators have held judicial pay hostage to a host of unrelated political demands, ranging from their own pay to funding for charter schools and Off-Track Betting. The result has been a long-term pay freeze for judges. By now, it's been so long since they've gotten a raise that some judges resorted to suing the state. In February, our highest court, the Court of Appeals, ruled that lawmakers violated the state Constitution's Separation of Powers doctrine by refusing to consider judicial pay on the merits, thus threatening the judicial branch's co-equal and independent status. But the high court stopped short of ordering a specific raise. By freezing judicial pay, lawmakers have put New Yorkers' liberties and property and contract rights in jeopardy. They've inhibited the state's ability to attract and retain qualified judges. One activist judge, Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Arthur Schack, himself a former teacher, even proposed having judges join the teachers union. That would denigrate the judiciary and isn't likely to happen, but it's hard to criticize Schack, given the preferential treatment our Legislature affords unionized state workers. Taking judicial pay out of the hands of lawmakers was the right move. But the solution is too little too late. Paying judges just a fraction of what we paid them in 1935 and having New York drop from first to 49th in state rankings on judicial pay undoubtedly means we will lose some of our best and brightest judges and fail to attract qualified new ones. At a minimum, judicial morale and productivity will suffer. Absent some dramatic change, New Yorkers will pay the price -- through job losses in the financial sector, congested dockets and delays and an overall erosion in the quality of the justice our courts have provided. Stephen B. Meister is a partner in Meister, Seelig and Fein, LLP.