Commission recommends pay hike for Maine judges

Posted Feb. 04, 2009, at 9:33 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Judicial Compensation Commission has recommended for the second year in a row that the salaries of judges be raised to keep them from falling further behind their colleagues across the country.

Salaries for Maine judges are the lowest in New England and among the lowest in the country, according to the report the commission submitted Tuesday to the Legislature. That hurts Maine’s ability to attract and retain high-quality judges, the report said.

Maine was listed as 37th for Supreme Court chief justices, 42nd for Supreme Court associate justices and 39th for Superior Court justices by the National Center for State Courts.

“After more than 10 years of reviewing the topic of judicial compensation, the commission remains convinced that the costs of providing needed improvements to judicial salaries [are] crucial towards insuring the continuance of a high quality judiciary,” the report said.

Maine judges will not be getting a cost of living increase on July 1, Mary Ann Lynch, spokeswoman for the courts, said Wednesday, because raises are tied to the consumer price index. The index at the end of 2008 was zero, she said.

Gov. John Baldacci praised the judiciary Wednesday but said that this is not the year to raise salaries.

“Maine’s judicial system serves as a model for the rest of the country and I am proud of the work they do,” Baldacci said in a statement. “These people are not working for the high salaries, but they should be fairly compensated.

“The report from the Judicial Compensation Committee is helpful, although we are in difficult economic times, not just in Maine but around the country,” he continued. “For that reason, it is hard to justify investing more money at this time. We all need to work together to get through this global financial crisis and look at additional funding in the future.”

The commission was created by the Legislature in the mid-1990s. The three-member panel is charged with issuing a report on judicial salaries every two years. It made the same recommendation in 2007 that it made this week.

The commission recommended that as of July 1 base salaries for the judiciary be increased in the following manner:

• Supreme Court chief justice, from $138,294 to $151,074.

• Supreme Court associate justice, from $119,594 to $130,659.

• Superior Court chief justice, from $117,098 to $127,937.

• Superior Court justice, from $112,145 to $122,493.

• District Court chief judge, from $117,098 to $127,937.

• District Court, deputy chief judge, from $114,582 to $125,215.

• District Court judge, from $112,145 to $122,493.

“These recommended base salaries reflect what current judicial salaries would be if the original base salary recommendations made by the commission in its 1996 report had been implemented and if all scheduled cost-of-living increased had been granted since 1998,” the report said.

There is one chief justice and six associate justices on the state Supreme Court. There are 17 Superior Court justices, one of whom serves as the chief justice to handle administrative duties. There are 36 District Court judges, one of whom serves as chief judge and another as deputy chief judge to handle the administrative work of the court.

The one-time cost over two years to increase the base salaries of judges was estimated to be between $600,000 and $700,000.

Supreme Court Associate Justice Robert Clifford told the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee in May 2007 when it considered recommendations in the commission’s last report that keeping judges adequately paid helps to keep them out of the political arena, according to a story published previously in the Bangor Daily News.

“But we have to, in fairness, lobby to ensure we’re fairly compensated,” Clifford said then. If the judicial pay increases are approved, “we could stick to judging and stay away from politics.”

The commission’s recommendations were not passed two years ago.

Members of the commission are Sandra Featherman of Kennebunkport, president emerita of the University of New England; Edwin Clift of Ellsworth, president of the board of directors of Merrill Bank; and lawyer Horace A. Hildreth Jr. of Falmouth.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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