- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 1, 2005

ANNAPOLIS — Calling Maryland’s 272 judges “the best judiciary money can’t buy,” the state’s chief judge appealed to lawmakers yesterday to approve a plan calling for pay raises of up to 22.6 percent spread out over the next four years.

“The real pay of Maryland judges has decreased over the years. Our regional rankings have declined, and significantly so,” Chief Judge Robert M. Bell of the Court of Appeals said in his annual State of the Judiciary address before a joint session of the Senate and House of Delegates.

The Judicial Compensation Commission, appointed by the governor and legislative leaders, recommended a four-year plan that would increase the salary of the chief judge from $151,352 to $181,352 by 2009. At the bottom of the scale, salaries for District Court judges would increase $15,000 per year to $127,252.

The legislature rejected the commission’s recommendations in 2000 and 2002, and legislative leaders say they don’t know what will be done with this year’s plan.

“I don’t think the entire four-year package will pass, but I think some portion will,” Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Prince George’s Democrat, said after listening to Chief Judge Bell’s speech.

Sen. Patrick J. Hogan, Montgomery Democrat and vice chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, said he hasn’t made up his mind about pay raises and doesn’t know what will become of the commission’s recommendations.

“I think we need to look and see how they rank with other states and how the salaries are affecting the judges we are getting and keeping,” he said.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. included money in this year’s budget for the first step in the commission’s plan, but he is not committed to funding all four years.

“By any measure, our judges are underpaid,” the governor said.

House Minority Whip Anthony J. O’Donnell, Calvert Republican, said he wants to keep the money in the budget for next year to “move the pay raises forward.”

Pay raises proposed by the commission for next year would range from 2.5 percent for Circuit Court judges to 3.4 percent for associate judges of the Court of Appeals. Bigger raises would come in the next three years, with salaries increasing from 13.4 percent for District Court judges to 22.6 percent for Court of Appeals judges.

Mr. Ehrlich has included money in his budget for a 2 percent cost-of-living increase for all state employees, which judges will get if their pay plan is not approved.

Judge Irma Raker of the Court of Appeals said Maryland ranks third-lowest in judicial salaries among 11 states in the East from Rhode Island to North Carolina. West Virginia is last and North Carolina next to last.

Nationally, Maryland is 17th, but is 31st in the nation when salaries are compared with the cost of living, she said.

In his 22-minute address, Chief Judge Bell also asked legislators to approve his request for 13 new judgeships — seven in the Circuit Courts and six in the District Courts. There has not been an increase in the overall number of judgeships since 1998, he said.

Smoke Free Maryland, in its annual effort to persuade lawmakers to ban smoking in bars and restaurants, is boosting its campaign this year with a poll that shows 63 percent of residents favor snuffing out cigarettes in those businesses.

The lead sponsors appeared at a morning press conference yesterday with “I’d love a smokefree MD” stickers on their lapels, and vowed to continue introducing their bill until the General Assembly approves it. The bills were introduced yesterday and are co-sponsored by 31 delegates and 14 senators, supporters said.

“It’s shameful that Maryland has not already passed this,” said Sen. Ida Ruben, Montgomery Democrat and a lead sponsor, who first introduced the Clean Indoor Air Act in 2002.

But Sen. Thomas McLain Middleton, Charles Democrat and head of the committee that killed the legislation last year, again isn’t promising that the bill will make it out of the Finance Committee. He said he is not convinced that its supporters are doing enough to encourage restaurants and bars to ban smoking on their own.

A poll by Annapolis-based Gonzales Research & Marketing found 63 percent of the 804 polled favor a law that would prohibit smoking in all indoor workplaces, including bars and restaurants. The same poll, conducted Jan. 3 through Jan. 8, found 49 percent of respondents consider secondhand smoke a “very serious” health hazard. The poll’s margin of error is 3.5 percentage points.

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