Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Tony Phyrillas: Greedy judges, not low pay, undermine our courts

It appears Pennsylvania judges aren't the only ones whining about their pay.

Federal judges are now making noise about their paychecks. Maybe they should learn from Pennsylvania judges' experiences when it comes to asking taxpayers to shell out more money.

If you'll recall, the infamous July 2005 middle-of-the-night pay raise for Pennsylvania politicians and judges was hatched up by Gov. Ed Rendell, legislative leaders (most of whom have been voted out of office) and Ralph Cappy, chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

Cappy's court eventually ruled that the way the legislators took the pay raise (something called unvouchered expenses) was unconstitutional, but restored the 10 percent pay raises for themselves and 1,200 other state and local judges. And they also tied future pay increases to salaries of federal judges.

The backlash against Pennsylvania judges began in 2005 when Russell Nigro failed to win his retention re-election for another 10-year term on the state's highest court. The other judge on the ballot that year, Sandra Schultz Newman, narrowly won her retention vote, but she ended up resigning from the court in 2006, citing the constant criticism of judges by Pennsylvania residents.

Pennsylvania voters will get another chance to send a clear message to greedy judges when they get to pick three new judges for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court this November. Justice Thomas Saylor is seeking retention and two vacancies on the court (Nigro and Newman) must also be filled. Voters can send a strong message to Cappy (who won't face voters until 2009) that greed is not a virtue when you decided to wear the judicial robes.

Replacing three of the court's seven members would send a strong message to Harrisburg that Pennsylvania taxpayers are tired of being fleeced by politicians, whether they are members of the executive, legislative or judicial branch.

At the same time Pennsylvania judges have been whining about their pay, members of the U.S. Supreme Court have been lobbying for bigger paychecks. Chief Justice John Roberts has made several public pleas for higher pay, calling the lack of a big payday for federal judges a "constitutional crisis."

On Wednesday, Justice Anthony Kennedy told members of a Senate committee that Congress has disregarded judicial pay, creating morale problems among judges and threatening to undermine judicial independence.

The current salary level for judges "is insufficient to attract the finest members" of the legal profession to accept appointments to the bench, Kennedy said during a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, according to the Associated Press.

Federal district court judges are paid $165,200 annually; appeals court judges make $175,100; associate justices of the Supreme Court earn $203,000; the chief justice gets $212,100.

Kennedy said "$160,000 sounds like a lot of money to the average American, and it is. But it is insufficient to attract the finest members of the practicing bar to the bench," according to the Associated Press.

There's no argument that lawyers can make a lot more money in private practice than they can serving on the bench. But I challenge Kennedy to find one sitting federal judge who took the job because of the money. And who says the highest paid person is always the most qualified person?

If Roberts and Kennedy agreed to serve on the Supreme Court because they were expecting a big payday, they are fools. Whatever happened to the concept of public service? Nobody held a gun to Roberts and Kennedy and forced them to join the Supreme Court.

Roberts and Kennedy knew what the salary was when they accepted their current positions. They also knew that they would have lifetime tenure and an opportunity to create a legacy for themselves. (And annual financial disclosures show that most of the justices on the Supreme Court have net worths of more than $1 million.)

If Roberts and Kennedy think they can make more money in the private sector, then by all means, they should resign from the court today and join a corporate law firm.

There's nothing in the Constitution that says a Supreme Court justice has to stay on the court into their 90s or until they die in office. They are welcome to step down any time they want and I guarantee there will be thousands of other applicants waiting in line to take their place on the court.

Nobody runs for president of the United States because of the salary. The same goes for the Senate, the House or the bench. Those positions provide intangible rewards that cannot be measured in dollars.

Judges are free to write books and give lectures to supplement their income.

If things are that tight at the Roberts and Kennedy households, maybe their wives could get a job, like most American households, where both spouses have to work to make ends meet.

Tony Phyrillas is a columnist for The Mercury in Pottstown, Pa. He received a first place award for Best Opinion Column in 2007 by Suburban Newspapers of America. He was also honored for column writing in 2006 by the Society of Professional Journalists.

5 comments:

Joe R. said...

The justification that since lawyers make so much judges need to make more is based on the assumption that lawyers are making an appropriate wage. The problem is that the judges run a court system that more or less requires citizens and corporations to hire lawyers. The judges run am inefficient systems that serves to increase the billable hours of the lawyers and what’s worse is that even more inefficient lawyers are further rewarded with higher incomes. There is no check and balance on a lawyer's income and no real policing of lawyer's billings. So the judges are in essence basing their presumed value on the income of individuals in a system they control.

The more judges make a court system that needs lawyers and lots of time, the more the lawyers make; the more lawyers can make, the more judges are worth. This is a structurally unsound argument. No average citizen could buy Judge Cappy's rational that judges should be paid more because newly graduated lawyers can often make $150,000 or more. The problem isn't the judge's pay, it that a freshly minted lawyer who provides no intrinsic productive value to society can make $150,000 +. That is ridiculous. Add to all of that that Pa is one of the highest lawyers per capita states in the U.S. and the problem becomes more clear.

My question is this -- What have judges done to reduce legal fees that citizens and corporations pay? Is there one example?? What have they done that serves to increase the legal fees and costs? Look at SB 74 now in the legislature and suggested by the courts; it serves to create required work (and billings) for lots of new work automatically! What's with that? Instead of increasing the legal fees for people, what can be done about reducing them?? Not one judge, legislator or executive branch employee seems to care about that. And why should they, they are generally all lawyers too!!


Indeed, in many instances, the PA Legislature is passing its responsibility to make the rules over to the PA Supreme Court that administers the rules. What is to stop the court from making an ever more complicated and unwieldy system where lawyers make higher and higher wages?? In fact, if the judges do that, they can say that the judges deserve more money. This isn’t simply a Pennsylvania problem, bit as we have seen in the last few years; PA often has the most obviously self-gratifying system for our public servants.

Many Pennsylvanians are affected by the court system. I’d wager that a much higher percentage of citizens have been involved in court case than have ever had the opportunity to meet a legislator. Most who have dealt with the courts know how inefficient and costly they must be to the taxpayer and are acutely aware of how much legal fees have escalated.

It is time for a change, time for the courts to change to serve the citizen instead of the attorneys.

Joe R said...

The justification that since lawyers make so much judges need to make more is based on the assumption that lawyers are making an appropriate wage. The problem is that the judges run a court system that more or less requires citizens and corporations to hire lawyers. The judges run am inefficient systems that serves to increase the billable hours of the lawyers and what’s worse is that even more inefficient lawyers are further rewarded with higher incomes. There is no check and balance on a lawyer's income and no real policing of lawyer's billings. So the judges are in essence basing their presumed value on the income of individuals in a system they control.

The more judges make a court system that needs lawyers and lots of time, the more the lawyers make; the more lawyers can make, the more judges are worth. This is a structurally unsound argument. No average citizen could buy Judge Cappy's rational that judges should be paid more because newly graduated lawyers can often make $150,000 or more. The problem isn't the judge's pay, it that a freshly minted lawyer who provides no intrinsic productive value to society can make $150,000 +. That is ridiculous. Add to all of that that Pa is one of the highest lawyers per capita states in the U.S. and the problem becomes more clear.

My question is this -- What have judges done to reduce legal fees that citizens and corporations pay? Is there one example?? What have they done that serves to increase the legal fees and costs? Look at SB 74 now in the legislature and suggested by the courts; it serves to create required work (and billings) for lots of new work automatically! What's with that? Instead of increasing the legal fees for people, what can be done about reducing them?? Not one judge, legislator or executive branch employee seems to care about that. And why should they, they are generally all lawyers too!!


Indeed, in many instances, the PA Legislature is passing its responsibility to make the rules over to the PA Supreme Court that administers the rules. What is to stop the court from making an ever more complicated and unwieldy system where lawyers make higher and higher wages?? In fact, if the judges do that, they can say that the judges deserve more money. This isn’t simply a Pennsylvania problem, bit as we have seen in the last few years; PA often has the most obviously self-gratifying system for our public servants.

Many Pennsylvanians are affected by the court system. I’d wager that a much higher percentage of citizens have been involved in court case than have ever had the opportunity to meet a legislator. Most who have dealt with the courts know how inefficient and costly they must be to the taxpayer and are acutely aware of how much legal fees have escalated.

It is time for a change, time for the courts to change to serve the citizen instead of the attorneys.

THE CENTRIST said...

What, exactly, are you advocating the courts do, Joe?

Joe R. said...

First off, the courts need to release information so that the problem of legal fees to citizens can be understood. There is simply no real data available on the legal costs to Pennsylvanians and where these costs are concentrated. Provide statistics on length and cost of cases for each judge so that we can understand which judges are doing a poor job and which are doing a good job? Without knowing the average costs incurred by litigants for a given judge, how can we know how to vote?? What are we voting on for a given judge? What is their record, what are their case statistic numbers?? How many days to they work, what is their attendance record? What special projects have they done within the courts system and what were the results of their efforts?? These numbers and facts are calculated and available within the courts, why don't we citizens have them?

Regarding lawyers: Rate lawyers on cost per case and provide that data to the consumer. There is simply no comparative data on legal fees from firms. As a function of oversight, legal firms should report financial and case information data to the state. These firms are making their living pursuant to laws of the state, so there should be some reporting regarding their performance.

Have some sort of meaningful citizen oversight and policing of the court system. As it stands today, the courts and legal industry police their own and we have seen that when their self interest, or their collective self interest is involved, the courts are NOT impartial.

Why is it that when a lawyer shafts a client that it is not something that the State gets involved with. Public corruption extends to all officers of the court, and that includes lawyers. Where is the licensing board hearing similar to what other professions have??

There are lots and lots of things that can be done to reduce the burden of the legal system on the citizens that encounter it. Yet there seems to be no effort at all to understand this cost, quantify it and reduce it where feasible. It's like the assumption is that the courts work just fine and are very efficient, so why look into it.

I mean that is backwards thinking from a citizen's point of view, they work for us, we don't work for them!

Joe R said...

No Comment Tony? I mean I can't believe that you feel judges and lawyers aren't at some of the root of the problem in Pa. Its not like "Philadelphia Lawyer" is a recent slang term.