ANNAPOLIS, Md. -- Against the objections of several Frederick County delegates, state lawmakers Tuesday approved a $14,000 raise for judges in a vote that staved off a larger increase that was poised to kick in.
The resolution to bulk up judicial earnings passed the Maryland House of Delegates 84-47 after a vigorous debate on the floor. The decision will lift pay for the four judges on the bench in Frederick County Circuit Court, and the three in the county's District Court.
But in a year when the state is pinching pennies and talking tax increases, some local delegates said judges -- who already earn six figures -- should not be seeing higher salaries.
"It was outrageous to me that we would talk about giving ... raises to judges in this economy," Delegate Michael Hough said, "when we're not giving teachers any increase, and we're not giving state employees any increase."
Some who cast a "yes" vote Tuesday argued that the $14,000 increase was the lesser of two evils, because a raise more than twice as large was looming.
The Maryland Judicial Compensation Commission had recommended raising salaries by more than $29,000 by fiscal 2016. In late January, the proposal by the governor-appointed commission was offered as a joint resolution to the General Assembly.
If legislators had failed to intervene with a different plan within 50 days, the commission's recommendations would have been adopted automatically.
Delegate Galen Clagett was the only Frederick County lawmaker to vote in favor of the resolution Tuesday.
"I'm not happy about it," he said. "We either do half of it or all of it. If we hadn't voted, it would all have gone into effect. It's a damned if you do, damned if you don't situation."
The Senate gave the House a watered-down version of the commission's proposal and approved phasing in the raises over three years, starting in July 2013. The amended version would lift a District Court judge's current salary of $127,252 to $141,333 by fiscal 2016 and a Circuit Court jurist's annual take of $140,352 to $154,433.--
The trimmed package of raises passed the Senate on March 7 by a vote of 33-9.
An attempt to eliminate the raises altogether failed on the House floor Monday evening, as did a Tuesday morning effort to prune them.
Delegate Kelly Schulz, who supported both amendments, agreed with Clagett that lawmakers found themselves in a tight place, but said she wanted to send a message by standing her ground and opposing even the smaller raise proposed by the Senate.
Frederick County Sen. Ron Young voted against the resolution, but it garnered support from Sen. David Brinkley, who argued a competitive salary helps attract the best judicial candidates to the job.
The last salary increase for judges was recommended by the commission in 2005 and eased in over four years. The commission unsuccessfully pushed for raises in 2009 and 2010, according to state analysts.
A July 1 survey of judicial salaries found that Maryland Circuit Court judges ranked 17th in the nation, but fell to 43rd place when adjusted for cost of living.
"Especially in these economic times, we need to ensure we have the best and the brightest sitting on the bench," Brinkley said.
In addition, halving the pay raises was preferable to stomaching those designed by the commission, Brinkley said.
While the increases proposed by the commission would cost the state about $14 million in fiscal 2016, the raises approved by legislators Tuesday are estimated to carry a price of $6.8 million that year.
The raises also help offset the higher pension costs new judges might face, Brinkley said. The Senate on March 8 passed a bill that would increase retirement contributions from 6 to 8 percent for those who join the judiciary after June 2012. That legislation is now in the House of Delegates.