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It was the largest retirement of Massachusetts judges in at least 15 years — and the most expensive in history.

The 32 judges retiring in 2014 range from the eminent to the controversial — from the chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court to a district court judge assigned to desk duty after being caught at Logan Airport pocketing another traveler’s Cartier watch.

But the vast majority have one thing in common:  They are eligible for enhanced retirement benefits that could total $500,000 each over 20 years thanks to a long-awaited salary hike that boosted their annual pensions by $22,500. Seventeen judges who had not reached the mandatory retirement age of 70 exited after July 1 when the pay raise took effect, some within days.

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Some were also able to take weeks or even months off in 2014 while still collecting tens of thousands in payments for unused vacation and sick time on their way out the door. Liberal benefit policies allowed the retiring judges to collect an average of $27,000 for unused benefits, according to figures from the state comptroller.

“I was proud and happy to serve the Commonwealth as a district court judge,” said western Massachusetts District Court Judge Rita S. Koenigs, 62, who retired on July 19 with an extra $50,979 for unused sick and vacation time despite taking vacation on nearly a third of the working days in 2014 before she stepped down. “I worked hard until my last assigned day.”

Court records dating back to 2000 show that about 15 judges retire in a typical year and, prior to 2014, there were never more than 24 retirements. But Trial Court Chief Justice Paula M. Carey said it is not surprising that so many judges stepped down this year.

“The last pay increase prior to 2014 was in 2006,” Carey said in a statement. “The work of a judge is labor intensive, and they work hard as public servants to meet critical societal criminal justice needs.”

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The Legislature approved a $30,000 pay hike this year, which happened in two steps, January 1 and July 1, raising most judges’ pay to $159,694. But even after that increase, Massachusetts judicial salaries still ranked only 38th among the states, once the cost of living is factored in, according to survey by the National Center for State Courts.

Martin W. Healy, the Massachusetts Bar Association’s chief legal counsel, said the raises were long overdue and gave some burnt out judges an incentive to leave and make way for new ones. “You can infuse new blood into a very staid system,” Healy said.

In fact, the retirements, combined with vacancies being filled from prior years, have allowed Governor Deval Patrick to nominate 45 judges in 2014, by far the most in his eight-year administration. That represents more than 10 percent of all state judges, extending Patrick’s legacy for decades after he leaves office next month.

But, first, court administrators had to navigate the costly exodus of judges lured by legislature-mandated retirement rules that created powerful incentives to cash in.

“It’s all about the pensions,” said Barbara Anderson of Citizens for Limited Taxation. Judges, as a group, she said, “maneuver themselves into higher pensions.”

Unlike most state employees, whose pensions are based on an average of their three highest earning years, judges who retire at age 65 with at least 15 years experience get a pension equal to 75 percent of their highest salary — even if they are paid that salary only for a day.

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As a result, seven judges who retired in the week after the July 1 pay hike took effect got an annual pension boost of more than $10,000 compared to if they had retired on June 30. And their pension was more than $20,000 larger than they would have received on December 31, 2013, the day before the first $15,000 step of the $30,000 increase went into effect.

Retiring judges cash out in other ways, too, getting paid for up to 30 unused vacation days when they leave even if they’ve taken many weeks of vacation in the year they retire.

Koenigs, who served 24 years on the bench, said she had built up so much unused vacation and sick time from past years that she could afford to take 42 days of vacation — out of 138 working days in 2014 before she retired — and still save 30 unused vacation days to cash in at her July retirement, according to her statement.

But Koenigs stressed that she was only following the rules that were spelled out in state laws governing judges’ benefits.

“I carefully planned my time for 2013-14 in anticipation of my retirement,” she said in her statement. “On my last day of work, which was an administrative day, I finished my work . . . and left the courthouse at the normal closing hour.”

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Similarly, Superior Court Judge Christine McEvoy, 63, stopped working by the 4th of July, taking unused vacation and personal days until her retirement took effect on Sept. 4. She still received a payment of $36,648 for unused sick and vacation time.

At least one other judge was more aggressive about minimizing his work while maximizing his payments in 2014: Charles R. Johnson, who was demoted from his position as chief of the Boston Municipal Court system at the end of 2013.

Johnson, 65, immediately took a three-month paid leave starting in January and then appeared in court only a handful of times in the three months before his retirement on July 5. He was also assigned to help his successor as chief of the municipal court system for a time in April.

Despite all of Johnson’s time off, he still received a payment of $40,200 for unused sick and vacation time when he retired days after the July 1 pay increase, according to the state comptroller.

Johnson, whose situation was reported by the Globe last month, did not respond to numerous requests for comment.

Top court administrators have not challenged Johnson’s right to the time off or his payments, but they adopted a new policy to keep a closer eye on the amount of unused vacation and sick time judges accumulate as well as their right to paid leave. Starting in February, the central office in Boston will track these benefits, which “will allow greater accountability and consistency, as the judiciary continues to streamline its human resources practices,” according to a court spokesperson.

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Retirement provided a soft landing for other controversial figures, including District Court Judge Patricia G. Curtin who was barred from hearing cases after being stopped by State Police at Logan Airport in February. She was paid half a year’s salary during which she was either on paid leave or restricted to administrative duties.

Curtin, who did not return phone calls seeking comment, was seen on surveillance video Feb. 25 taking a $4,000 silver Cartier watch that another woman had placed in a security bin, according to the State Police report.

Police found her a half hour later reading a newspaper at the American Airlines Admiral’s Club, where she admitted she had the watch but said she had tried to turn it in, and that the Transportation Security Administration employees were too busy to help her.

“It was an honest mistake,” she told police, who allowed her to continue on her flight to Hong Kong.

But Trooper William A. Thompson, according to his report, concluded “she had substantial opportunity to return the watch to the TSA and failed to do so.”

She was placed on paid leave until April when an East Boston clerk magistrate declined to bring larceny charges. After that, she was assigned to the district court’s administrative offices in downtown Boston, where she remained until retiring in August 4 at age 67, receiving $9,515 for unused vacation and sick time.

Though the number of judges retiring this year — 32, combining those reaching retirement age and voluntary retirements — is the largest in memory, some had predicted even more would leave.

“Once the pay raise actually went into effect, a number of judges had second thoughts,” said Healy, legal counsel of the Massachusetts Bar Association. “It was a reality check for a lot of judges. They know they have a good deal going in terms of their current rate of compensation and they decided to stay.”

But Carey, the chief justice for administration, said it is also evidence that many judges are dedicated to their work, choosing to stay on the bench despite the lure of a comfortable retirement.

One retiring judge, Robert F. Murray, had hoped to stay another year, but he could not continue to make judicial decisions after a stroke in May.

“He absolutely loved his job,” said Murray’s wife, Catherine. “He never wanted to leave.”


Andrea Estes, a member of the Spotlight Team, can be reached at andrea.estes@globe.com