The Merits of a Judicial Pay Raise in Pennsylvania

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On July 7, 2005, a political firestorm was ignited in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in the form of a controversial pay raise for legislators, members of the executive branch, and judges. The legislation was eventually repealed in November 2005 after months of public outcry and the removal of one Supreme Court Justice from office via the ballot box.

Despite the overwhelming unpopularity of the pay raise, Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ralph J. Cappy defended the salary increases for judges, arguing that the Commonwealth’s court officials are (1) underpaid compared to judges in other states, (2) leaving the bench in pursuit of higher salaries in the private sector, and (3) unable to maintain judicial independence because they must rely on the legislature for their compensation.

This policy brief assesses the Chief Justice’s arguments and finds them without merit. First, the assertion that judges in Pennsylvania are underpaid relative to other judges is false. Pennsylvania’s judiciary is ranked among the ten highest paid in the nation at every court level, earning considerably more than the national average for state judges. Regionally, Pennsylvania’s judges are near the top, with appellate judges receiving the highest salary compared to their counterparts in neighboring states. Furthermore, no other state with similarly or higher-paid judges offers annual cost-of-living adjustments. Based on these yearly salary increases alone, Pennsylvania judges will become the highest paid in the nation in just a few years.

Additionally, there is no evidence that Pennsylvania’s judges are fleeing the bench in great numbers in order to draw larger salaries in private practice. Indeed, there has been no shortage of candidates for judicial offices, as many judges are motivated to sit on the bench by the desire to serve the public and dispense justice, as well as to enjoy the prestige of the office, rather than a large paycheck.

Finally, judges are bound by an oath of office to make independent rulings. The Pennsylvania Constitution grants the power of the purse to the state legislature—and hence the citizens of the Commonwealth. Removing this important check on the judiciary would violate the principles of our Founding Fathers and do little to combat corruption in either the judiciary or the legislative branch. In the end, the integrity of any judge is fully dependent on the character and virtues of the judge—not on who determines the compensation of the judiciary.

This policy brief found the arguments marshaled by Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ralph Cappy in support of the July 7, 2005 judicial pay raise to be without merit.