Stymied so far in efforts to lobby Albany for a judicial pay increase, New York state court administrators said Thursday they have found funds to give each judge up to $5,000 a year to reimburse them for job-related expenses ranging from uncovered medical costs to judicial robe purchases.
The 1,300 state judges also will get more vacation time, reimbursement for a third night of attending annual meetings of their judicial associations and a return to a statewide forum for their summer judicial seminars instead of a regional one.
"These benefits are not in any way intended to be, nor could be, a substitute for a salary increase," Chief Administrative Judge Ann Pfau said Thursday in an interview. "It is really saying it is very unfair to judges what has happened to salaries. We wanted to look at anything we can do in the interim to make their lives better, because it is very demanding to be a judge."
Pfau said court administrators were continuing to lobby Gov. Eliot Spitzer and the Legislature for a pay hike.
Judges last had a raise in 1999. Seemingly promising talks between Spitzer and Legislature to secure a pay increase for judges fell apart in March, April and again in June amid growing acrimony between the other two branches of government. Several legislators said Thursday a return by lawmakers to Albany to deal with outstanding issues now does not appear likely before mid-December.
Pfau said she remains in regular contact with counsels to the governor and the legislative leaders. A judicial pay bill is still among the items being discussed, she said.
The benefit improvements stemmed from conversations Pfau said she and Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye have been having all year with judges, many of them frustrated or furious at Albany's inability to raise judicial salaries.
"What we believe is the salary situation is not something we can individually address right now, but to the extent that we can address things, we want to do so," Pfau said.
Kaye declined to comment on the prospects of a pay raise bill passing this year.
In addition to having New York state judges go the longest in the nation without a pay increase, Pfau said they also have been "falling behind in the benefits and amenities area" to judges in other states.
The "Supplemental Support Fund" will cost $6.3 million a year. It can be used to cover up to $5,000 in reimbursable expenses such as out-of-pocket medical costs and qualified wellness programs, as well as dues to bar associations, purchase of legal books and purchase and maintenance of robes. Expenses incurred beginning Thursday can be applied against the fund, according to court administrators.
Employees in the Office of Court Administration's benefits division will be assigned to a new Office of Judicial Support to handle reimbursements from the fund and the other enhanced benefits. The office can be reached at JudgeHelp@nycourts.gov or 212-428-5558.
As far as vacation time is concerned, administrators said all trial-level judges who have served five years or more on the bench will get 25 days vacation starting in January. Those with less than five years will continue to get the previous maximum of 20 days until they reach five years. Leave for the Christmas recess will continue.
Following the budget crisis created by the economic fallout from Sept. 11, 2001, the state stopped holding centralized judicial seminars and went to regional meetings. Pfau said judges preferred to be with their colleagues from around the state and asked that the centralized format be reinstated. She said that will cost about $1 million a year extra.
OCA will pay the initial costs of the benefit enhancements by deferring some equipment purchases and economizing in other areas, Pfau said. The judiciary has also experienced unanticipated savings from reduced Medicare payments.
Appropriations for the enhancements will also be included in the judiciary's budget for the next state fiscal year, beginning April 1, 2008. That spending plan is due to be presented to the governor and Legislature by Dec. 1.
In April, Kaye identified benefit improvements for judges as one area administrators would explore in light of the continuing inability of the governor and Legislature to approve salary increases. At that time, she also mentioned a suit by the judiciary to force the other two branches to approve a pay increase as a possibility, though a last resort.
In a memo to judges last week, Kaye wrote that she believed discussions over pay raise legislation were still productive and said she did not want the filing of a suit on behalf of the judiciary to close off that dialogue.
REACTION FROM BENCH
Thursday, Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Arthur M. Schack who is involved in one of the two pay raise suits filed on behalf of individual judges or judicial associations, said the benefit enhancements move OCA in the "right direction" in terms of judicial compensation.
But Schack said it will not affect the pay suit he and two other judges filed. The suit is before Supreme Justice Thomas J. McNamara in Albany County.
"I don't see where it changes anything," Schack said Thursday. "Do we have a pay raise? No."
He questioned why it took until now for the OCA to move on the benefits.
"OCA knows that the morale of the judges is pretty low and [Judge Pfau] had to do something," Schack said.
Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Marsha L. Steinhardt, president of the Supreme Court Justices Association, said enhanced benefits has always been a "stand alone" issue from any litigation to force Albany to increase judicial pay. Her group continues to discuss the possibility of filing or joining a suit.
Steinhardt said she believes talks her group had with court administrators about improving the benefits were instrumental in the improvements outlined by Pfau Thursday.
"I think it is great," she said.
Brooklyn State Supreme Court Justice Herbert Kramer said the increased vacation time would be "very, very good for the morale of the judges."
If judges will be allowed to offset deductibles and premium increases against the Supplemental Support Fund, the enhancements will be meaningful, Kramer said.
"What they have done is put us back to the period of time when we had our last raise as to medical," he said.
Pfau said many of the details of acceptable costs to be applied against the $5,000 fund will be worked out in the coming weeks, as will reimbursement procedures.