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Lancman objects to judge pay raise ruling

A Manhattan Supreme Court justice ordered the state Legislature last week to pass pay raises for the state's judges within 90 days, but state Assemblyman Rory Lancman (D-Fresh Meadows) said he expects lawmakers to appeal the decision.

New York judges, who receive a $136,700 salary, have not received a pay increase in 10 years. A lawsuit filed in Manhattan Supreme Court did not request a specific amount. It only asked the judge to determine whether the Legislature acted unconstitutionally by linking judicial raises "with legislative compensation and other unrelated substantive matters."

Lancman, a state Assembly Judiciary Committee member, said he disagreed with Manhattan Supreme Court Judge Edward Lehner's ruling.

"I don't think there's any legal basis for the court's decision," Lancman said, referring to Lehner's argument that the state Legislature impedes on the judiciary's independence because lawmakers have the power to set judges' salaries. Lehner further ruled that lawmakers did not give pay increases to judges because bills authorizing the raises did not include increases for legislators.

"There's no basis for asserting that," Lancman said.

"The system... is broken and dysfunctional," the assemblyman said, a reference to how past governors treated judicial raises. "We need to break that gridlock."

Going back to the Pataki and Spitzer administrations, Lancman said, governors linked lawmakers' salaries to legislation.

"Spitzer wanted to hold up legislators' salaries to get the campaign finance system he wanted," the assemblyman said.

Lancman noted that he believes state judges are due for a raise but prefers that an independent commission enact the increases instead of the Legislature, which was recommended by Chief Judge Judith Kaye of the state Court of Appeals.

"The only impediment to that system is the governor," the assemblyman said.

Gov. David Paterson's office said in a statement that Lehner's decision "is clearly at odds with the state constitution, which stipulates only the state Legislature has the authority to set judicial salaries. The governor's office is exploring its legal options."

Queens County Bar Association President Steven Orlow said "it's kind of odd" that lawmakers determine judges' salaries.

"I think it's inherently contrary to the concept of separation of powers," Orlow said.

He noted that the bar is strongly in favor of salary increases for judges.

"They're really hurting, some of them," he said, pointing out that legislators have "outside activities and practices" to supplement their income while being a judge is a full-time job.

Lancman said the Legislature plans to appeal Lehner's decision.

Reach reporter Howard Koplowitz by e-mail at hkoplowitz@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 173.

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