Pennsylvania Pay Scandal Keeps Rolling

Published December 1, 2006

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ruled lawmakers violated the state constitution when they passed midterm pay raises last year, but the justices kept pay raises for themselves and 1,000 other judges that were approved as part of the pay package.

The September 14 ruling has renewed anger about the scandal, and a legislative move is afoot to roll back judicial pay and take other actions against judges.

“The Pennsylvania Supreme Court cherry-picked a provision from a non-severable bill that had been repealed–a bill they deemed to be partially unconstitutional–and made a ruling that would fill its pockets and the pockets of every other member of the judicial branch,” said Republican state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R-Butler), who opposed the pay raise and the budget that funded it.

“The judiciary, through this decision as well as others, has indicated that it believes it is above and beyond the reach of the people and their representatives in the legislature,” said Metcalfe.

‘Rekindled Outrage’

Less than two weeks after the court’s ruling, Metcalfe announced a package of “checks and balances” bills to terminate the judicial pay raise, reduce the term of office for judges from 10 to five years, eliminate the practice of judicial retention (where voters are asked whether a judge should be retained, without the judge running head-to-head against others for the position), and strike the constitutional provision that prohibits the reduction of a judicial salary in the middle of a term in office.

Nate Benefield, a policy analyst at the Commonwealth Foundation in Harrisburg, said the court ruling “rekindles the anger. In the mid-state region, Pittsburgh and Harrisburg especially, with talk radio and other media, it’s rekindled the outrage against an out-of-control state government. People are looking at the ruling as being in the court’s self-interest.”

By ignoring the non-severability provision of the bill to uphold their own pay raise while striking down the pay raise for lawmakers and salaried officials in the executive branch, “It’s like the court was saying we’ll take your bribe but we’re not going to do what you bribed us for,” Benefield said.

The only justice to dissent from the ruling–Thomas Saylor–is the next Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice who will face a retention election, in 2007.

Roiling Since 2005

The pay raise scandal has been roiling Pennsylvania politics since the raise was enacted in July 2005. Some members of Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court allegedly worked with lawmakers in 2005 to finagle the pay raises to get around the Pennsylvania constitution’s ban on midterm pay raises for elected officials. They devised a scheme to allow the payment of “unvouchered” expenses.

Officials could submit “unvouchered” expense items for reimbursement. Those unvouchered expenses resulted in pay raises for lawmakers that ranged from 16 to 34 percent. Their base pay effectively rose to $81,050 from $69,647.

Top legislative leaders saw their pay rise to $145,000, up from $110,000 a year. Annual salaries for supreme court justices went from $150,369 to $171,800.

Price Paid at Polls

The pay raise scheme sparked howls of protest among the Pennsylvania citizenry, and they struck back in November 2005 by voting against the retention of Justice Russell Nigro. Justice Sandra Schultz Newman was barely retained.

Nigro, a Democrat, became the first justice denied retention in the state’s history. Newman, a Republican, kept her job only with the help of a last-minute barrage of advertisements and endorsements from former Republican governor Tom Ridge and other Republican heavyweights.

One week after the stunning 2005 judicial retention results, lawmakers repealed the pay raise package.

But the electoral anger carried over to this year. Dozens of Pennsylvania lawmakers are being driven out of office. Thirty incumbents decided not to seek reelection, and 17 others were defeated in this year’s Democratic and Republican Party primary elections.

Money Kept

Meanwhile, some state judges challenged the repeal of the pay package, arguing the state constitution bars cuts to judicial salaries that are not part of an across-the-board salary reduction for all state officers. The state supreme court agreed with those judges and ordered the judicial pay raises reinstated.

Throwing salt into the wound of pay raise critics, the court also declined to require lawmakers to return the additional money they collected before the pay raise was repealed.

About 40 of 158 lawmakers who accepted the raise have kept the money. The rest have voluntarily returned it.

Steve Stanek ([email protected]) is managing editor of Budget & Tax News.