Pennsylvania Supreme Court reinstates judges' late-night pay raises that fueled voter backlash

Thursday, September 14th 2006, 10:15 pm
By: News On 6

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) _ The Pennsylvania Supreme Court reinstated pay raises for about 1,000 elected judges and district judges Thursday, adding fuel to a controversy that has roiled state politics for more than a year.

The court ordered that judges' pay return to the level it was in November, before a pay-raise law that had been passed in the middle of the night four months earlier was repealed in the wake of widespread public anger. The judges will also receive retroactive pay.

Justice Ronald D. Castille wrote in a 100-page opinion joined by four other justices that repealing the pay raise law was ``clearly, palpably and plainly unconstitutional to the extent that it diminished judicial compensation.''

Supreme Court associate justices' salaries will increase from $155,783 to about $171,000, and pay for common pleas judges will increase from $135,293 to about $149,000, according to the state's courts administrative office.

The justices also said the Legislature violated the state Constitution by permitting its members to accept midterm pay raises in the form of ``unvouchered expenses.''

A plaintiff in one of the lawsuits, Gene Stilp, on Thursday called on the Legislature to require its members to repay the unvouchered expense money.

Another plaintiff's attorney, Robert C. Heim, noted the U.S. Constitution bans reducing judges' pay, and the state constitution permits it only in extreme circumstances.

``You don't want your judges looking over their shoulders to see whether the Legislature is happy with their decision as it might be reflected in their pay,'' Heim said.

Senate Republican lawyer Steve MacNett released a statement expressing ``deep disappointment'' with the decision, and Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell issued a statement promising to ``abide by and follow'' the decision.

The law granting hefty pay raises to state lawmakers, the governor, cabinet officials and judges was passed at 2 a.m. just before the General Assembly adjourned for the summer on July 7, 2005.

That sudden and secretive manner and the size of the raises drew a sharp, sustained public response. The outrage was widely credited several months later for the unprecedented defeat of a sitting Supreme Court justice and the primary election losses of 17 incumbent legislators in May, including the two highest-ranking state senators.

The issue prompted at least five lawsuits, including the three that were consolidated before the state Supreme Court.