Hold The Mayo, Your Honor

And so it comes to this :

Members of the judiciary haven’t gotten a raise in 12 years, despite lawsuits and legislation. So if they need to make ends meet, they can moonlight, Judge Jonathan Lippman told jurists in a Web broadcast on Wednesday.

“Judge Lippman is more mindful than anyone else that judges have not received even a cost-of-living raise in 12 years,” said courts spokesman David Bookstaver. “This is one way to try to alleviate the enormous financial burden placed on the judiciary.”

A New York Supreme Court Justice, which is the statewide trial level judicial position despite the misleading title, makes $136.700, plus $5,000 in expenses.  Not chopped liver, but nothing to write home about.  They earn substantially more than most criminal defense lawyers, less than first year Biglaw associates, and nearly twice the Happy number

While the judges’ complaints that they are underpaid aren’t always appreciated by the public, for whom that salary doesn’t put them in the category of suffering, almost no one who isn’t inclined to knee-jerk animosity concedes that this is a terrible state of affairs that should have been remedied long ago.  It wasn’t, and given the dysfunction of the New York legislature, where lawmakers want to tie judicial raises to their own because nobody, but nobody, wants to give legislators a raise, the judges have suffered.

Chief Judge Lippman has now opened the door to an alternative, allowing judges to “moonlight” provided that it’s not practicing law to avoid the obvious conflict.  Washing cars is fine.  And who’s that guy in the black robe at the counter at McDonalds?   And there’s a extra buck in it, judge, if you get me a parking space near the front.

This is embarrassing.  It’s demeaning.  If Judge Lippman’s purpose is to demonstrate to the Legislature just how disgraceful their refusal to provide a pay raise to a co-equal branch of government is, then he’s nailed it.  The potential for humiliation is huge.  Consider the photo op potential of a fast food joint staffed by people wearing black robes with one of those funny GoodBurger hats on their heads.  Great PR, right?

Granted, there are more than a few jurists who might find trouble getting a job parking cars, whether because of their personal driving records or their inability to show up for work on time.  And then there’s the temperament problem, making positions dealing with the public problematic.  Imagine Judge Judy on Saying Yes to the Dress.

If this plan is for real, however, and ignoring the time demands of moonlighting, it will create a level of awkwardness and the potential for unintended consequences that could place the judiciary in a situation that will diminish their one strength.  Remember, judges command no army and control no purse strings.  Their fiat comes from the public’s willingness to accept their decisions, their integrity and the virtue of their reasoning. 

As much as this will grate on many, the power of the judiciary depends on dignity.  That there has been a loss of dignity already may be true, but that makes it all the more important that we don’t lose any more.  We can’t afford it.  The system is already held in sufficiently low esteem to place the law at risk of being ignored and ridiculed.  Granted, some judges have had a big hand in this loss, from unreasonable delays to irrational decisions to inappropriate demeanor.  Yet there remain those judges who have upheld their oath and served us well.  More importantly, without a viable judicial branch (for better or worse), consider who we’re left with.

Perhaps the expectation is that those judges who want to get a second job will find positions that compromise neither their integrity nor the dignity of their office.  What positions those will be remains a mystery.  Whether those positions will be available to them is unknown.  And there is always the question of the long term, unintended consequence of working outside the courthouse.  They can’t all be adjunct lawprofs, bestselling romance novelists or motivational speakers.

Judge Lippman’s announcement, which reminds us that the problem, which had somewhat fallen off the radar, remains and that there is no fix in the works, or even in sight.  Maybe a decent photo op of judges demeaning themselves, a nice “will judge for food” photo of a judge sitting with a tin cup outside the courthouse, will have an impact.  But I doubt it.

Whether this new plan will offer judges any meaningful opportunity to make some decent side money (and thus relieve the Legislature of its duty to adequately fund the positions of a co-equal branch of government), or push the problem back onto the front burner, it’s a long shot with plenty of opportunity to do some serious damage to an already diminished post.   Once the dignity of the judiciary is lost, chances aren’t good that it can ever be recovered.  As far as I can tell, there’s no plan to compensate for the loss of respect that would come from having a judge working a night job.