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A bill that would give New York judges their first pay raise in six years, as well as provide a mechanism for regular salary increases, is gaining momentum at the Capitol. Key lawmakers in both houses and from both parties are supporting a judiciary-promoted measure that would grant judges a salary increase retroactive to April 1 and establish a procedure to ensure that judicial salaries keep pace with the cost of living. Salaries of state Supreme Court justices would match those of U.S. district court judges, guaranteeing that state judges would automatically get the same cost-of-living raises at the same time as their federal counterparts. State judges in other courts would also get raises when the salaries of federal judges are increased, and those increases would be linked on a percentage basis to the pay hikes of state Supreme Court justices. Under the proposal, the salaries of about 300 Supreme Court judges would be hiked approximately 19 percent, from $136,700 to $162,100 — the amount currently paid U.S. district court judges. At the same time, judges of other courts would receive increases of as much as 28 percent for the lowest-paid county-level judge to about 14 percent for Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye, the state’s highest-paid judge. Chief Judge Kaye now earns $156,000 a year and would make $178,310 under the proposal, nearly as much as Gov. George E. Pataki’s $179,000 annual salary. The measure also seeks to bring a level of consistency to the salaries of county-level judges, which vary from locality to locality. That disparity has prompted myriad lawsuits over the last several years. Judges have prevailed when they could show that a colleague holding the same position in a demographically similar county was paid more. They have lost when they could not establish a clear parallel. The Office of Court Administration has long advocated equal pay for equal judicial positions. Although the bill on the table would not eliminate the disparities in salaries paid to judges within the same level of court, it would reduce that spread by setting those salaries at a percentage of Supreme Court judge salaries. For instance, the salaries of county, family and surrogate’s court judges now range from 88 percent to 100 percent of that paid to Supreme Court justices. Under the court system’s proposal, those judges would receive at least 95 percent of a Supreme Court salary. Judges who are already receiving more than 95 percent of a Supreme Court salary would continue to be paid at the current percentage and would continue to make more than judges now paid at a lower rate. A salary commission would meet every other year to evaluate the appropriate pay relationships and consider whether further equalization is necessary. The bill, drafted by the judiciary and endorsed by every judicial association in the state, has been introduced in the Senate by Sen. John A. DeFrancisco, R-Syracuse, with co-sponsorship by 14 others in the Republican majority. Assemblywoman Helene E. Weinstein, D-Brooklyn, said she will introduce a multisponsored bill in the lower chamber. “We think we are in the game, which is where we want to be,” said Chief Administrative Judge Jonathan Lippman. “We very much believe this is a question of fairness and of continuing to attract the kind of bench we want.” All told, the proposed increases would cost taxpayers an additional $30 million annually. Judge Lippman said the fact that the Legislature this week completed work on the 2005-2006 budget is of no consequence. He said the matter can be addressed outside the formal budget. LINK TO POLITICIANS New York’s judges have received only two pay raises in the last 18 years, largely because raises for judges have long been linked to raises for legislators. Politically, lawmakers are reluctant to increase their own pay, and judges usually have to forego a raise until legislators give themselves one. That occurs at lengthy intervals and only when rank-and-file lawmakers are willing to take the political flack that inevitably follows a pay raise. When the climate is right for a legislative pay raise — and there are no solid signs that the climate is right this year — judges typically approach lawmakers, hoping to be included in a salary bill. But this year’s effort, begun early when Chief Judge Kaye made a public appeal for judicial salary increases, evinces a different strategy. The proposal is being advanced early in the legislative session — it usually comes up at the last moment and late at night when legislators get the nerve to vote themselves pay raises. And it is not linked to salary increases for members of the Senate and Assembly. Judge Lippman said the judicial pay proposal can stand on its own merits. “This is not an effort to plant seeds,” he stressed. “We very much believe the time is now.” DeFrancisco and Weinstein, the respective chairs of the Senate and Assembly Judiciary Committees, agree. In an interview Wednesday, DeFrancisco said he introduced the bill to “take the pay of judges outside the politics of the budget process.” “I personally believe that, in the case of judges, there should be an automatic cost of living increase based on a formula, like they have in the federal courts, and we shouldn’t have to go through this every six or eight years and then try to make up for the years when there was no salary increase,” he said. “I don’t think that makes any sense, especially when others working in the court system get either negotiated or regularly scheduled salary increases.” The senator observed that non-judicial court employees are largely covered by union contracts. Their salaries have increased regularly, while those of judges, like those of lawmakers, have remained stagnant, he said. “It should be divorced from the Legislature,” DeFrancisco said, referring to judicial salaries. DeFrancisco and his 211 colleagues in the Legislature have gone without a pay raise for just as long as the judges. Unlike judges, however, many of them have other occupations — DeFrancisco, for instance, has an active law practice — and are less reliant on a base government salary. In addition, most lawmakers bolster their salary with leadership and/or committee assignment stipends. Those stipends can add thousands of dollars, and in some cases tens of thousands of dollars, to base pay. OPPORTUNE TIME Some Capitol observers speculate that this may be an opportune time to increase legislative salaries since lawmakers just completed the first on-time budget in 20 years and do not face re-election until 2006. A bill to increase legislative pay would likely include a pay raise for judges. But the judiciary is not counting on that and DeFrancisco said he does not expect it. He said it is unlikely lawmakers will increase their pay this year, which means the judges’ only hope may be to de-link judicial and legislative salary increases. “On the merits, there is no reason it should not pass,” DeFrancisco said. “On the politics, the question is whether it is linked to legislative salary increases. If that is the case, it’s not going to happen.” Weinstein said she supports the judiciary’s pay proposal and will introduce a bill in the Assembly. Last month, the court system transmitted to the Legislature a 17-page report arguing for increased judicial compensation. The report, signed by Chief Judge Kaye, Chief Administrative Judge Lippman and the presiding justices of the four appellate divisions, documents “New York’s history of sporadic judicial salary increases.” It notes that New York trial court judges, when their salary is adjusted to reflect the cost of living in the state, are now paid less than judges in 22 other states. The report also observes that the state’s “past commitment to salary parity with the federal judiciary has been lost” as federal district judges have received six pay raises since 1999 and New York’s judges have received none. “New York’s judges, to be sure, understand the rocky political path that must be followed for salary reform to take place,” according to the report. “They should not, however, be asked to accept the status quo with no end in sight.”

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