A dozen years is a long time to go without a pay raise, but there's finally an end in sight to that long string of zeros for New York State judges.

The legislature this week created an independent commission to set judges' salaries but, in an important nod to fiscal responsibility, ensured they won't actually see an increase before 2012. By then the state should be in better financial shape.

The move ended a long fight over compensation that featured Albany at its glacial, self-serving worst.

Legislators shamelessly politicized the issue for years by linking raises for themselves to those for judges, a ruse to deflect public anger should they vote themselves more money. They clung to that cynical strategy despite protests and lawsuits by judges, and a crusade by the state's chief judge, Jonathan Lippman, and his predecessor to win cost-of-living pay hikes. Decoupling those pay decisions is the key reform here.

State judges are certainly not impoverished. Supreme Court justices make $136,000 a year. But that's considerably less than U.S. District Court judges' $174,000, and even less than some first-year lawyers earn at large firms. And 12 years of inflation has eroded the value of judges' paychecks, while opportunities to earn outside income are tightly restricted. That's no way to attract and retain the capable jurists New Yorkers deserve. hN