A rare $30,000 pay hike that will boost judges’ pensions is enticing dozens to retire this year, leading hundreds of lawyers to apply for seats on the bench but also raising concerns that the departures could slow down the justice system.
Court observers believe at least 30 longtime judges could retire, and some worry that an influx of inexperienced judges, specifically in the lower courts where new appointments are typically made, could exacerbate judicial backlogs as the new judges find their footing.
“If there are a lot of appointments made of people with minimal experience, that could very dramatically affect the quality of the administration of justice,” said John Amabile, a longtime criminal defense attorney. “There is going to be a big learning curve. Until that person is able to gain the experience, which might take several years, that person is going to be less sure-footed.”
That could also affect sensitive decisions that experienced judges are more likely to handle with confidence, such as issuing restraining orders or setting bail in cases involving violent crimes. The number of backlogged cases in municipal and district courts has increased sharply over the last four years, in large part because of state budget cuts.
Some worry that a large departure of judges could add to that increase, as nominees go through the long process of getting appointed to the bench.
“It could result in a crush of cases not being heard,” said Martha Grace, retired chief justice of the juvenile court, who left the bench in 2009.
Still some are excited about the potential for large judicial turnover.
“I look at it as an infusion of new blood into a staid justice system,” said Martin W. Healy, chief legal counsel of the Massachusetts Bar Association. “I think it’s a positive change for the whole system.”
Up to 36 of the 411 judges serving in state courts could retire this year, twice as many as most years. This year, 17 judges have reached or will reach the mandatory retirement age, but Healy said 19 more have told the chief justices in their court that they are seriously considering retiring early.
In 2013, the state Legislature approved a $30,000 pay bump, which takes full effect this summer and will bring the salaries of associate judges throughout the trial court system from $130,000 to $160,000.
A judge’s pension is 75 percent of their highest pay and under the retirement system, a judge only needs to work one day at the highest earned salary.
Many lawyers predict that judges will begin putting in their retirement papers soon after the salary hikes take full effect on July 1. In the last 16 months, the Judicial Nominating Commission has received 514 applications from lawyers who hope to become judges, compared with 175 applications that the commission received in 2012.
Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O’Keefe said one of his prosecutors, Lisa F. Edmonds, was nominated by Governor Deval L. Patrick to the Orleans District Court in April. She had been applying for a judgeship for the last 2½ years.
O’Keefe said that mass retirements could pave the way for more accomplished, young lawyers like Edmonds to make it to the bench.
“One hopes that the people who are nominated will have a solid background in the law,” he said.
But even qualified appointees will need training.
Grace said she instructed newly appointed judges to train for three to four weeks, sitting alongside experienced judges as they presided over matters and visiting other parts of the courthouse, like the clerk’s office and the probation department.
“I would hope that the training schedule would not be minimized,” Grace said.
Trial Court Chief Justice Paula M. Carey said in an e-mail that each department has “extensive judicial training for newly appointed judges.”
She said that over the next year the trial court plans to hold a conference for all new judges to receive additional training and instruction.
“We are confident that the governor will fill vacancies as they arise,” Carey said.
In Massachusetts, the Judicial Nominating Commission, whose members are appointed by the governor, conducts a “blind review” of applications, and without knowing the names of the lawyers, selects those the commission will interview. The commission then sends recommendations to the governor for nomination. Nominees are interviewed by the Governor’s Council, which votes on each appointment. Ousters of appointed judges are extremely rare and a judge usually sits for decades. And that is why new blood is needed, Healy said.
“In many instances, some got appointed to the bench very young and they’ve been on for 30 or 40 years,” Healy said. “A lot of them have become stale in terms of their knowledge of the law.”
Grace, the retired judge, said she wonders how many judges will follow through and actually retire this year.
“I’ve talked to a lot of people who have said they’re leaving,” she said. “But sometimes people, when they get up to it, don’t always want to leave necessarily.”
The relationships formed with fellow judges are unusually strong, Grace said.
“There is a tremendous amount of collegiality,” she said. “It’s such a unique kind of position. A lot of people feel that collegiality, and have friends and may not want to leave that.”