Letter From The President of The Association Of The Bar Of The City Of New York

2005-12-01 01:00

To The Readers Of The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel:

Over the past few years, I and my predecessors have expressed increasing concern with assaults on the judicial branch. While we have focused on efforts of Congress and the president to curb the authority and independence of the judicial branch, another important aspect of maintaining a strong judiciary is to pay them adequately. We are failing to do that on both the federal and state level.

I was told recently that the Chief Justice of Singapore is paid more than $1 million a year. Apparently other high-ranking government officials in Singapore are also compensated based on their true market value. While that model does not seem to reflect the practice in other parts of the world, it did remind me how important it is that we support pay increases for members of our judiciary.

In 2003, the Association urged Congress to pass bills that would have increased compensation to the federal judiciary. We stressed that adequate compensation was "among the most serious threats to the continued vitality and independence of the federal judiciary." Unfortunately, Congress did not heed our word and adequate funding for increased judicial salaries has not been forthcoming. The situation has only gotten more dire with the government cutting funds from other parts of the judiciary budget that have necessitated reductions in staff and services that will impact the users of the court system as well.

We have also communicated with the governor and legislative leaders in New York to express the need for an increase in salaries for members of our state judiciary. Despite vocal support from many bar groups, as well as a march up the steps of the legislature led by the Chief Administrative Judge, no action was taken.

Politics and the inevitable comparison to salaries of other government officials is of course a factor in this process. But it is interesting to compare judicial salaries to the payments made to arbitrators who are hired regularly to preside over cases in a private setting. These cases are no different, generally speaking, from matters filed in our courts. We think nothing of paying $500 or more per hour for arbitrators to hear such cases.If a case continues for only 15 days (plus the usual preparation time), the cost of a panel of three arbitrators for that one case would likely exceed the annual salary of most judges. Does this make any sense?

At present, the high end of the judicial salary range approximates the pay of junior to mid-level associates at large law firms; the lower end of that range is less than the salary of first year associates. While we cannot expect judges to be paid the top dollars they could earn in the private sector, we must provide enough compensation to attract outstanding lawyers and retain them as judges, and to make clear the respect with which we hold this branch of government. By contrast, our current approach does not even provide salary increases that match inflation.

Beyond raising judges' salaries, we must establish a mechanism that provides for periodic review and adjustment of salaries in a way that removes the decision from the political realm. Judges should not have to go hat in hand to the other branches on a regular basis to seek appropriate compensation.

As lawyers we can make a difference by being more vocal in the effort to support increased compensation for judges and funding for court operations. When the issue arises again in Congress or the state Legislature, please speak out to make the public and the decision-makers aware of the need for significant improvement in judicial compensation.


Bettina Plevan