December 16, 1689. The English Bill of Rights.
July 4, 1776. America's Declaration of Independence.
April 12, 2007. Northampton County's Judicial Independence Day?
Well, not quite. It was a just a minor matter in a brief meeting of county council, attended by a small crowd. But for the first time I can remember, a county council actually stood up to our black-robed deities. Let me tell you the tale.
County workers don't make big money. Some of them get food stamps. Others get help with their home heating bills. Many have seen no raises for over three years. Because their cafeteria was shut down to make a judicial tunnel, they've spent the past few months eating lunches at their desks or in hallways. Black robes have their own private dining room, atop the rotunda, with a commanding view to aid judicial digestion. In fact, an entire floor of the new Taj Mahal is blocked off for their exclusive use. They say it's for security. I say they don't want anyone to know how little they work.
What the judges want, the judges get. That's the rule. Ridiculous extravagances like a wind-sensitive fountain or expensive marble floors are nothing to them. But they've ignored the peasants, and morale in the courthouse is at an all-time low.
County exec John Stoffa knows this better than most. Last December, he was nearly lynched by a group of angry workers who justifiably feel they're entitled to a living wage. Stoffa agrees the entire salary structure is too low, and has begun the work on a study aimed at fair compensation.
This is where court administrator Jim Onembo steps into the picture. You see, judges feel their law clerks deserve more money. A lot more money. But unlike everyone else, they won't wait for that job study so that everyone is taken care of simultaneously. They want their bottle and they want it now! It doesn't matter to them that a thirty percent raise to law clerks might annoy an employee who has seen nothing for over three years. Council was presented with a resolution authorizing higher salaries for law clerks, between $44,200 and $60,177!
What are law clerks? Students who just got out of law school. They haven't passed the bar. They help judges write opinions and run judicial errands. The judges did no salary study. They just plucked a number out of the sky.
Councilman Lamont McClure asked Onembo about how he arrived at his figures, and also pointed out that higher paid Lehigh County law clerks have actually passed the bar. He noted the inherent unfairness in singling out this group of employees for special treatment while other groups are forced to wait. Councilman Charles Dertinger referred specifically to the most ignored group of workers, the county's residual unit. He suggested the judges wait until we know everyone has contracts. Councilmen Dowd, Cusick and Branco echoed these concerns. The matter was tabled.
Hooray for our team!
McClure and Dertinger, to their credit, stood up against judicial arrogance and in support of courthouse workers. They refused to cave. The deities in black robes are learning there is more than one branch of government.
Amazingly, Councilman Ron Angle called this vote a "grave mistake." The champion of fiscal conservatism was all for raising salaries a whopping thirty-three percent without a single study or report to justify the increase. Actually, Ron should have recused himself. His litigation against a stump farm owner is regularly in front of judges who were demanding more money. His vote looked like a judicial shakedown.
And get this! Even the council solicitor tried to tell council what to do. Solicitor Lenny Zito, himself a former judge, said law clerks are the "most valuable asset a judge can have." That's not legal advice, Lenny. If the solicitor wants to get involved in decision-making, he should run for office.
Judges - 45,000,000; Council - 1.
It's a start.
Update: The Morning Call has a well-written and informative account of last night's meeting.