For years now there has been a lot of discussion about whether the State should finally raise the salaries of our Judges – the short answer is YES, but this issue warrants a much deeper explanation.
Article VI of our State Constitution defines the parameters and scope of our Judicial Branch. Paragraph 6 of Section 6 of that Article, delegates to the other co-equal branches of government the right to set the pay and privileges of our Judges. Let’s roll up our sleeves and look under this proverbial hood.
New Jersey law provides for 463 Superior Court Judges, including 6 Justices of the Supreme Court and 1 Chief Justice, as well as 12 Tax Court Judges, 47 Workers Compensation and 43 Administrative Law Judges. It is this group of professionals who are charged with making the most important decisions regarding our families, work, community, public policy and virtually impacting every aspect of our lives. In answering this special and rare calling to serve as a Judge, many of these proven professionals have walked away from very lucrative law practices. As a former Senator on the Senate Judiciary Committee, I have pored over hundreds of their applications and financial forms, and can attest to this fact. In a moment of truth, because of our failure to address this fairness issue, the State and the legal profession have lost the ability to recruit many of our best judicial candidates. Aside from being able to attract new judges, we are losing some of our best current judges – you need not look further than Bergen County’s former Assignment Judge Peter Doyne. We can no longer afford to close our eyes to this issue.
For those who have put themselves out there to be vetted as a judge, you have a certain profile in courage. For starters, the insanity of the politics and labyrinth of courtship is mind-blowing. Regarding the actual background check, there is an intense and often grueling process to have what has been commonly referred to as a ‘four way’ review. Once in the pipeline for serious consideration to be a judge, there is a review of your credit, work, neighbors, criminal history and financials by the State Police, Office of Legislative Services, local, County and State Bar, Governor’s staff, and Senate staff. Only the best (with rare exception) of our lawyers make it through this political and professional obstacle course.
It should be noted that once the actual judicial nomination takes place, there are several immediate reactions:
- A wave of jubilation overcomes the candidate.
- Clients and colleagues offer a congratulation but soon plan life without the nominee.
- Overworked Assignment Judges start to assess the strengths of the nominee and plot the proper usage.
- Senate staff really start the research process and Senators stage craft proper usage of senatorial courtesy.
- Spouses and family members question the intelligence and mental stability of the nominee, who has now condemned their family to a lifetime of vacations to Wildwood Crest (my favorite childhood destination) as opposed to Europe.
Once the Senate vote is completed and one is sworn in as a Judge, several feelings come to the surface:
- The overwhelming sense of pride rushes forward.
- An unmistakable mix of a calm, nervousness and peace overcome you – for a minute.
- A sense of responsibility washes over as you realize the awesome power in your gavel to make real time decisions that impact real people every day.
- A professional and personal pride swells a little inside as you reconcile, in your mind, what it means to reach this professional pinnacle.
- Fear of trying to avoid the now off limit relationships with that crazy uncle and childhood buddy who had “run-ins” with the law.
- The unavoidable concern that you won’t be able make ends meet – college tuitions, weddings all come to the forefront.
Now that you’ve seen the sacrifices of becoming a judge and the mindset of a sitting judge, let’s get to the point.
Superior Court Judges currently earn $165,000 – a salary that has been in place since January 2008. The gross judicial pay in 2008, after pension and health care deductions, was $149,935. Given the bipartisan pension and health care reforms of 2010, today a judges’ gross pay, with those same deductions, has been reduced to $134,583. READ THIS PART SLOWLY: today judges have $15,352 less in their pay check. While that seems really odd, it is actually true. I don’t know many people in the workforce today who are making about 10% less than what they were a DECADE ago. It is no surprise that this has directly affected the interest and caliber of those willing to become a judge.
Then there is the subject of CPI (Consumer Price Index) in judicial salaries.
Including the CPI is just as important as raising the overall salary. CPI MUST be part of the salary bill. If done, this will be the last time judicial salary should ever have to be subject to the whims of politics. Had the CPI been part of the last raise in 2009, judges would have seen gradual increases over the last ten years (165K-167K-173K etc.) and this article would instead be about boring things like naming self-serving legislators who have profited off their politics (law, insurance, real estate just to name a few).
The moment to pay our judges a livable wage and somehow recognize the seriousness of their lifelong sacrifice is here and it is now.
It is not that I make this challenge from the cheap seats, while I was roaming around the Senate Chambers as a legislator, I put my name on a bill that did exactly as I now advocate.
Let’s do the right thing and finally put to rest this long lingering problem. Vote the pay raise with the all-important CPI, and let’s keep our quality judges from retiring prematurely out of financial need and let’s continue to recruit the highest caliber and best legal minds in our profession. The people of New Jersey deserve no less.
We ask candidates to subject every aspect of their life to examination as they run through the gauntlet that is judicial vetting in the quest to put the best qualified individuals on the bench. Those that will put the law and the needs of our citizens above all else. It’s about time we gave them more than a black robe (which they have to buy themselves) and a gavel for their dedication.
Chairman of the New York and New Jersey Port Authority, Kevin O’Toole is the former Senator from the 40th District.