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For many Pennsylvania jurists, the issue of pay raises had become something of a touchy subject in the past 10 years. On the one hand, the lack of competitive wages in comparison to those found in private practice helped whittle down the judicial talent pool to the truly civic-minded, especially given the high cost of living in major urban areas, judges have said. But on the other hand, it had become clear that Pennsylvania’s judges would get raises only when the state’s other elected public servants did — and lawmakers may sometimes be reticent to appear to their constituents as having voted in favor of padding their own pockets. That’s why many expressed relief that when the most recent push for judicial pay raises began, it was coming from the top, i.e., Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ralph J. Cappy. And they seem equally pleased that when the measure did pass the General Assembly last week — marking the first real raise for state judges in a decade — the scheme included the Cappy-backed proviso that from here on in, the salaries of Pennsylvania’s elected officials will be pegged to those of their counterparts in the federal system, effectively relieving the state Legislature of its pay-raising duties. In an interview with The Legal, Cappy said the lack of recent pay increases had meant that Pennsylvania’s jurists had fallen behind their counterparts in other states when it came to salaries. “It’s important that they be paid at a comparable salary in order to, one, attract qualified people, but also, and as importantly, to be able to retain them,” Cappy said. He noted that at least one prominent Philadelphia judge who recently returned to private practice had cited financial concerns as influencing his decision to leave public service. Gene D. Cohen, who had been one of only a small number of Philadelphia Common Pleas judges assigned to that court system’s Commerce Case Management Program, joined Montgomery McCracken Walker & Rhoads earlier this year after over a decade-and-a-half on the bench. Cohen said that while there were many reasons he chose to leave, the prospect of a raise “certainly would have made me hesitate” about leaving the bench had such a measure passed the Legislature when he was still a judge. In February, Cohen had told The Legal that he “would like to have gotten more money.” “I was extremely disappointed by the Legislature’s failure to pass the pay raise in November [2004],” he said at the time. “So much so, that I now wonder whether that would have made a difference in [my decision].” In 2004, a first-year associate at a large Philadelphia law firm earned about $115,000 (not including bonuses). When he left, Cohen, like his fellow trial court judges across the state, was making a base salary of roughly $130,500. Had he remained on the bench, he would have started making just over $149,000 when Gov. Edward G. Rendell signed House Bill 1521 of 2005 into law last week, according to Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts spokesman Jim Koval. (The lawmakers’ pay raises will not take effect until after December 2006.) Philadelphia Common Pleas Trial Division Administrative Judge James J. Fitzgerald III — whose salary will go from just under $132,000 to roughly $150,500 — called the pay raise a “great morale booster for the judges.” “It’s always nicer when people are upbeat,” he said, adding later, “Your salary as the years progressed wouldn’t buy what it did before.” Fitzgerald praised Cappy and the Supreme Court’s other justices for taking the initiative in backing the pay raises. “The feel I had was that this was in the hands of the chief justice, and that’s what he wanted — to undertake this with a uniform voice,” Fitzgerald said. Cappy said he hopes the pay raises will help motivate sitting judges and encourage prospective ones. “Psychologically, if you’re at a pay scale which is at least comparable to that of your federal colleagues … then you concentrate on those other reasons you became a judge,” he said. Cappy said his efforts in support of the pay-raise measure — which was formally introduced by Reps. Raymond Bunt Jr., a Montgomery County Republican, and Michael R. Veon, the Democratic Whip — included meeting with the governor and party leaders in both houses. Philadelphia Bar Association Chancellor Andrew Chirls said that his organization’s lobbyists have long been “reminding the Legislature of the need for well-paid judges.” “We’re very pleased,” Chirls said of the approval of the pay raises. “We think it’s important to continuing to attract a diverse and capable judiciary that there be adequate pay, and we’ve been plugging away for it in Harrisburg for a long time.” Cappy said he strongly suggested to the politicians with whom he met that they wed Pennsylvania’s elected officials’ salary scheme to that of the federal system. “If you’re pegged to your federal counterpart, as they go, you go,” he said. “If every state did this … then everything would be tied to the [U.S.] Congress, and it would give some order to things.” According to Cohen, the biggest financial concern for the average nonadministrative common pleas judge involves his or her children’s education. Most in that category are in their mid-40s, he said, meaning that many will have teenagers already in or on their way to college. The roughly $18,500 increase in annual salary could pay for much, if not all, of one year’s college tuition, Cohen said. “A 45-year-old has teenagers, and most of the judges are married with children, and that becomes crucial to how they live their lives,” Cohen said. Fitzgerald noted that the pay increase will have a significant impact on at least Philadelphia’s judicial pension plan, as retired Philadelphia judges’ pensions are based on an average of their three highest-salaried years on the bench (as well as on number of years of service). The H.B. 1521 pay scheme factors in how many judges serve under an administrative or president judge, as well as where a president judge serves. (Allegheny County and Philadelphia president judges make slightly more than their counterparts in other judicial districts.) Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court justices are getting the largest pay increases — the chief justice will receive an increase of roughly $22,300; the other justices, roughly $21,500. Cappy will soon start making about the same salary as the governor will in 2007 — about $177,000. Under H.B. 1521, Pennsylvania’s governor will make 85 percent of the U.S. vice president’s $208,100 — which is $176,855, at this date. Pennsylvania’s justices, in turn, will make what U.S. appeals court judges make — $171,800, currently — and the chief justice will make $5,000 on top of that. Rendell spokeswoman Kate Phillips said the governor will decline his pay raise if he is still in office when it goes into effect in 2007. Cappy said he would not decline his. “I will accept the pay raise with sincere thanks to the governor and the Legislature for having the courage to implement [it],” he said. “I in no way want to demean that effort.” Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. 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