Stateline Story

Backlash Over Pay Raise Claims First Victim

  • November 11, 2005
  • By Peter Durantine
For years, Pennsylvania voters somnolently pulled the lever to award fresh terms to their appellate court judges, hardly caring to know anything about them, even their names. Judges up for a retention vote always won, and overwhelmingly - until this week's election.
  
Two state Supreme Court justices - the only names on Pennsylvania's Nov. 8 statewide ballot - ran into a buzz saw of voter wrath over a pay raise approved by legislators whose names won't be on the ballot until next year.
  
Justice Sandra Schultz Newman  squeaked by with only 54 percent approval, while voters ousted her fellow justice, Russell Nigro, with 51 percent voting to dump him. It is the first time that a judge has been tossed off the bench in the 36 years since the state established its retention system, which seeks voter approval of elected judges every 10 years.
Nigro, elected to the Supreme Court in 1995, was the innocent victim of voter anger brewing since July, when state lawmakers gave themselves a whopping pay raise—to $81,050 from $69,647 per year, ranking them second-highest-paid behind California —along with salary increases for judges, the governor and agency heads. Salaries for Supreme Court justices went to $171,800 a year from $150,436.

Grass-root groups with throw-the-bums-out cries sprung up seemingly overnight using the power of the Internet to organize.
  
The public initially aimed its wrath at Pennsylvania's 203 House members and 50 senators. Groups such as Operation Clean Sweep , InformedPA , No Pay Raise Project and RockTheCapitol.org organized rallies with a 25-foot floating pig balloon, and recruited candidates with the goal to defeat all incumbents.  
  
Unlike 1995, when lawmakers gave themselves an automatic annual cost-of-living adjustment, voter anger did not subside by mid-autumn as legislative leaders had expected. Unable to target the pay raisers until re-election time next year, government reformers set their sights on the justices to send a message.
  
The justices were forced to run unheard-of campaigns that featured television and radio spots, plus phone canvassing by Gov. Ed Rendell (D) and former Gov. Tom Ridge (R).
  
Meanwhile, newspapers harangued about the pay increase and other lawmaker perks - up to $128 in per diems just for making an appearance in the Capitol; up to $650 a month for leased cars or mileage; Cadillac health care plans that follow them into retirement; fat pensions that in some cases provide nearly two-thirds of their salary.
  
Lawmakers and the state Supreme Court's chief justice, Ralph Cappy , tried to reason with voters, but only fueled voter anger.
  
In an effort to calm the masses, Cappy wrote an Op-ed piece circulated in newspapers across the state praising state lawmakers for their "courage" at passing the pay increase. "Get a life," was one state senator's curt response to a complaining voter.
  
Lawmakers further incensed voters and sparked lawsuits in state and federal courts when they couldn't wait for the pay increase to kick in next term - as outlined in the state Constitution -- and started boosting their state paychecks early by claiming extra expenses.
  
A poll in September showed 79 percent of Pennsylvanians believed the raises were undeserved and 69 percent rated the General Assembly fair to poor.
  
Finally, little more than a week before the Nov. 8 election, both the House and Senate voted to repeal the raises - though they failed to finalize it by Election Day. The House and Senate still are trying to reconcile differences in their bills rolling back the raises. 
Each chamber's bill would repeal legislators' pay raises, but the Senate measure could let judges keep their pay raise while the House bill unequivocally strips judges of the increase. The senators argued their measure is designed to be upheld in court because it meets the state Constitution's requirement that judicial pay can't be lowered unless all other state employees' pay is reduced, too.
  
The row has sparked bitter infighting among leaders of the Republican-controlled Legislature and has led the governor to scold them.
  
"Sometimes I think we forget why we're sent here," said Rendell, who signed the pay raise bill and has promised to sign the repeal bill. "We're not sent to argue over our own power, our own salaries, our own perks. We're sent here to do the people's business, and Lord knows, it's time to start concentrating on that."
  
Political analysts believe Newman, the first woman ever elected to the state high court, succeeded because she had closer ties with her Republican party, while Democrat Nigro, publicly resentful at having to campaign at all, suffered mostly because of low voter turnout in southeast Pennsylvania, his voting base.
  
Voters have not been assuaged by the Legislature's incomplete attempt to repeal the pay increase. "We have a question as to how committed the Legislature really was at doing the right thing," the Rev. Sandra Strauss, the Pennsylvania Council of Churches' director of public advocacy, told Harrisburg's Patriot-News .
  
Political analysts are not yet convinced the ouster of one Supreme Court justice signals voter revolt, although they warn that voters have incumbents in the cross hairs.
  
"I think it's significant, but I don't think it's a revolution," said Larry Ceisler, a long-time political consultant in Philadelphia. 
  
A statewide Keystone Poll conducted the day after Tuesday's election showed 57 percent are less likely to vote for an incumbent who supported the raise.
  
Ceisler said there's an anti-incumbency sentiment prevailing, but how deep that goes remains questionable. He noted that one state lawmaker who voted for the pay increase ran for city controller and won with 80 percent of the vote.
  
A challenger's best chance at defeating an incumbent in Pennsylvania is during the spring primaries. When the political parties' leaders re-drew the legislative map in 2000, they gerrymandered nearly every district, leaving hardly any competitive seats.
  
It's one thing for voters to take out their anger on a justice they don't know in a statewide election, Ceisler said. "It's another thing to take it out on your local member who's also your neighbor."