HARRISBURG - State senators yesterday approved a bill to stop the salaries of Pennsylvania's 1,000 elected judges from automatically rising when federal judges receive raises - a provision that is a remnant of the 2005 government pay-raise law.
The bill, which passed 49-1, still requires approval from the House of Representatives and Gov. Rendell before it can become law.
The Rendell administration did not immediately say whether the governor would support the bill, and a spokesman for House Democratic leader Bill DeWeese of Greene County said he expected the bill to get a hard look at the committee level.
The House Republican leader, Sam Smith of Jefferson County, said his caucus would take a serious look at the legislation.
"I think it would be an improvement over what the current law is," Smith said in an interview.
The pay-raise law was repealed in November 2005 - four months after it was enacted - after a public outcry. But the state Supreme Court reinstated the portion of the law that raised salaries for judges and tied their future raises to the salary structure of federal judges.
The court ruled in September that repealing the judges' pay raise was barred by a constitutional provision meant to prevent the legislature or governor from punishing judges for unfavorable rulings by reducing their pay.
Current judicial salaries are $175,236 for justices of the state Supreme Court; $165,342 for judges of the Superior and Commonwealth Courts; and at least $152,115 for county Common Pleas Court judges.
"I am not seeking to reduce judicial salaries, but rather to change the structure on which those salaries are based," the bill's sponsor, Sen. Jeffrey Piccola (R., Dauphin), said in a statement. "This is necessary to avoid another huge pay increase for state judges when Congress raises federal judicial salaries."
Piccola said it makes more sense for state officials to set the pay of state judges.
However, some state officials, including Rendell, have supported the link to federal salaries as a way to remove judges' dependence for a pay raise on the other branches of government.
The only vote against the bill was cast by Sen. Vincent J. Fumo (D., Phila.). His spokesman, Gary Tuma, said the senator believes that judges "ought to be paid more than first-year lawyers at big law firms."
Federal judges have received cost-of-living increases in each of the last seven years but have not received a more substantial salary increase for 15 years.
The bill also would raise judicial salaries by $1 in an effort to help it withstand a potential legal challenge that it cuts judicial pay, Piccola said. Judges also would continue to receive annual cost-of-living increases tied to regional inflation indicators.