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Top judge’s pay-raise gambit leaves Queens leaders divided

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Everyone agrees that New York state judges are underpaid, but how the state's top judge is going about getting a raise has some borough leaders at odds.

David Cohen, the Queens County Bar Association president, said he was "saddened" to learn that state judges, who have not had a pay raise since 1999 , were denied a salary increase again this year and supports a lawsuit brought against state leaders by Chief Judge Judith Kaye concerning the judge's low pay.

"It's unfair to anyone, including judges, to not have had an increase in salary," said Cohen, who supports a pay raise for state judges. "It's not something any of us would be happy about."

Meanwhile, because two other lawsuits involving the salaries had already been filed by other judges, state Assemblyman Rory Lancman (D-Fresh Meadows) called Kaye's lawsuit nothing more than a publicity stunt.

"Kaye is acting like a cheap politician and that irresponsible behavior seems to be infecting the judiciary," Lancman said, referring to claims that some judges may be stalling cases to put pressure on state leaders to pass a salary increase.

Some state judges are refusing to hear cases from firms with ties to state lawmakers, The New York Post has reported. As a result, the state Commission on Judicial Conduct said it could become inundated with ethical complaints against such judges and urged all parties involved in the pay raise to act responsibly, the Post reported Tuesday.

Lancman said he agrees with points made in Kaye's original proposal, such as a pay raise for the state's judiciary and the setting up of a commission to review state legislators' and judges' salaries every four years.

State legislators also have not had a pay increase since 1999.

George Conway, an attorney for Kaye, maintains the lawsuit is fitting because she represents the state's judicial branch.

In her suit filed April 10, Kaye is asking for a pay raise from the current salary of about $136,700 to $169,300, the amount paid to U.S. district court judges.

Salaries for state legislators and judges are raised at the same time, and Cohen blames the pay freeze as a way that Govs. George Pataki and Eliot Spitzer pushed their own political agenda by holding out on salary increases for legislators. By extension, a judicial pay raise was ignored.

"It simply got caught up in other political issues," Cohen said.

Reach reporter Katy Gagnon by e-mail at kgagnon@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300 Ext 174.

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