In addition to making this a career, clerks pad their pay with a $25 stipend from reviewing divorce cases. Since 2010, Northampton County has paid these clerks $110,225 in stipends for doing what their job already requires them to do. This money is added to their salary for pension computation purposes. This money belongs in county coffers or better yet, in the pockets of parties seeking a divorce, not some entitled law clerk.
It gets worse. This isolated crew, who are only seen during their occasional peregrinations to row offices or the courthouse cafeteria, are moonlighting for attorneys who practice in Northampton County. They are writing briefs and doing research. This might be out-of-county research, but it's a patent conflict of interest that needs to stop immediately. It completely undermines public confidence in an independent and fair judiciary.
Late yesterday, I received four "questions" that are really an out-of-touch attempt to defend this outrageous behavior. Here are the questions and my answers.
1. Do you know if the divorce decree preparation is something that the law clerks are required to do as part of job or is this something the clerks do in addition to their other job responsibilities? If it's something extra, then I don't think the $110,225.00 over the course of 6 years is really that much-- roughly $18,000.00 per year. If the clerks stopped doing them wouldn't the county have to hire another employee to handle all of them? Surely that would cost the county far more than $18,000 per year.
Reviewing the record in a divorce case is very much something that law clerks are required to do as part of their job. According to the job description for this position, a law clerk reviews the documentation in no-fault divorces and drafts decrees for the judge. In essence, a law clerk does what a judge tells him to do. So he is getting paid to do something that the job description already requires.
2. Are you saying that your sources know for a fact these law clerks are doing research for lawyers in cases that are actually filed in Northampton County? The Code of Conduct rule you cite seems to be a bit ambiguous regarding whether a clerk is forbidden doing research for lawyers on cases not filed in Northampton County. The "any person or entity doing or seeking to do business with, or having an interest in a matter before" language could be interpreted as forbidding a law clerk from doing for a lawyer that is/has been "doing or seeking to do business" any time, ever, or forbidding a law clerk from doing work for a case filed in Northampton County. The latter I would certainly have a problem with, but I'm not that concerned with law clerks doing research for cases in other counties or federal court. Perhaps you and others feel differently, but I highly doubt its being done so that the lawyers gain some sort of favor with the court.
What I am saying is that these clerks are doing research for attorneys who practice in Northampton County. It makes no difference to me whether this is out-of-county legal research. If I am an attorney and discover that the judge's clerk is doing research for an opposing attorney, it will make no difference to me that it is out-of-county research. I will be deeply concerned whether the judge can be fair. I have discussed this with several attorneys and they are outraged that this is happening. Expect to hear about it. If you are doing work for an attorney, you better wrap it up quickly because you won't be doing it much longer.
3. Why is it such a big deal that some of the judges decide to keep their law clerks beyond 1-2 years? Shouldn't the judge be able to decide who their law clerk is? Maybe the law clerks that have been there enjoy being a law clerk. Federal judges frequently have life-long clerks. Just because a clerkship has traditionally been a 1-2 year position doesn't mean that you or I should have any say in whether or not a judge decides to keep a clerk beyond the traditional time frame. Is it really a bad thing that we have experienced law clerks contributing to decisions that affect people's lives?
This is no federal court. It is county court, where historically, clerks are there one or two years. That is how the funding has been planned. So no, a judge should be rebuffed when he attempts to cost the county more money than it plans on for this kind of expense. Council counts on paying for a clerk who will be there one or two years, not one who makes it a career. A clerk and a single judge have no authority to take it upon themselves to impose a financial burden on taxpayers without the assent of Council. The pay for clerks should be frozen at the starting salary. That way, you can be there 100 years and will never get more than the starting salary. County taxpayers also should not be shackled by a pension obligation for what should have been temporary employees.
4. The salaries might be a bit high compared to other counties, but when the vast majority of law grads have, on average, over $100,000.00 in student loan debt I don't really think that $57k is that high considering the costs/debt they've incurred to be eligible for the position. Hasn't there always been a mindset in this country that the benefit of advanced degrees is the potential to make more? Don't teachers and other people with professional degrees have a starting salary in the same ballpark?
What on earth makes you think that the taxpayers of Northampton County have some obligation to pay off your student loans? This is precisely the attitude I mentioned. You think you're entitled. You're not.
I know one law clerk who I would have begged to stay forever, a Harvard Law grad who edited the law review. She could do whatever she wants, but the court correctly made her a Master.
Resolution Increasing Law Clerk Salaries
Here's a question from me? Did NorCo Council ever vote to increase the salaries for law clerks in the first place?
This matter was first considered on April 12, 2007 and was tabled. Lamont McClure noted the inherent unfairness in singling out this group of employees for special treatment while other groups are forced to wait. Mike Dowd did not like the 33% increase. On May 17, 2007, Council voted 7-1 to remove it from the table. Council member John Cusick was the sole No vote at that time. But the consensus of Council was to wait to vote on it until the next meeting because no one had a copy of the resolution.
Though I was unable to find it, better minds than located the resolution, which was adopted June 7, 2007. It was opposed by John Cusick, who thought the raise was too high. Cusick was right.