Are Federal Judges' Salaries too Low?

One thing that federal judges across the political spectrum agree on is that they deserve a raise. According to Chief Justice John Roberts' 2005 Year End Report on the Federal Judiciary, low pay is a "threat to judicial independence" because "[i]f judges' salaries are too low, judges effectively serve for a term dictated by their financial position rather than for life." This debate will no doubt be rekindled by superstar Judge J. Michael Luttig's recent resignation to take a job as General Counsel at Boeing. Indeed, Judge Luttig cited the need to pay for his children's college tuition as one of several factors behind his decision.

I don't blame judges for wanting higher pay. But there is little evidence that the federal judiciary is losing good people because the pay is too low. Currently, federal judicial salaries are as follows:

Chief Justice of the Supreme Court: $212,000

Associate Justice: 203,000

Court of Appeals Judge: 175,100

District (trial) Judge: 165,200

Judges of specialized federal courts earn salaries comparable to those of appellate and district judges (see link above). At these pay levels, few federal judges are likely to be living from hand to mouth. Even so, it is certainly true that most of them could earn far more money in the private sector.

But it is not true that the federal judiciary is losing any significant number of good judges as a result. Although I do not have systematic data on this, anecdotal evidence and personal experience strongly suggest that there is no shortage of outstanding lawyers who would love to become federal judges, including many who would have to take a big pay cut as a result. Brett Kavanaugh (current D.C. Circuit nominee who was a partner at a major firm before entering government service) and C.J. Roberts himself (a partner at powerhouse D.C. law firm Hogan & Hartson before becoming a circuit judge) are two of many examples.

What about the danger of good judges leaving the federal judiciary prematurely in order to make money? Here, we do have some data. Chief Justice Roberts' report (link above) indicates that 92 federal judges left the bench between 1990 and 2005. Roberts claims that this is an alarmingly high number. However, there are currently some 678 federal district judges, 179 circuit judges, and 9 supreme court justices, for a total of 866. Justice Roberts' figures indicate that about 6 to 7 of them leave the bench each year. That is less than a 1% annual attrition rate (even if we factor in the fact that the judiciary was smaller in the 90s than today)! Very few, if any, other occupations have such low turnover. This suggests that being a federal judge is an extremely attractive job, notwithstanding any financial hardship.

Moreover, the above analysis assumes that all 92 judges resigned because of dissatisfaction with pay. As Roberts notes, however, 71 of them resigned only after reaching retirement age (he actually emphasizes the 21 who resigned early, but the other side of the equation is surely more significant). It is plausible to assume that many if not most of these resignations were due to illness, old age, or a desire to enjoy one's retirement years in peace. Federal judges who have reached the age of 65 and have served at least 15 years have the right to retire while still retaining their full salary. This creates a strong incentive to retire and cash in once the age of 65 is reached.

Roberts does note that 59 of the 92 judges who resigned went into private practice, which is a point in favor of his argument. However, even if all 59 left for financial reasons (an implausible assumption), this is still only a tiny fraction of the total number of judges (about 0.7% per year). Finally, it is worth noting that I have assumed that the Chief Justice was only counting Supreme Court, court of appeals, and district judges. If the figure also includes resignations by judges of specialized courts, then it would be a much smaller fraction of the total. Unfortunately, the report is unclear on this point.

Despite the Luttig resignation, there is little if any evidence that the quality of the federal judiciary is suffering because pay is too low. Nevertheless, there are two potential caveats to this conclusion. First, it is theoretically possible that a large pay increase would attract at least a few more superstar types comparable to Luttig. If so, it might be worth it, given the disproportionate impact a superstar can have on the quality of judicial precedent. However, I am somewhat skeptical that this conjecture is correct. Second, I think there is a good case for making judicial pay inflation-adjusted and for giving cost of living adjustments to judges located in particularly expensive areas such as New York or San Francisco.

Update: My original post missed a small pay increase for federal judges enacted in January of this year. The salary figures in the post have been edited to reflect the changes. Hat tip to Benjamin Shatz.

Kevin L. Connors (mail) (www):
I had some information comparing our federal judges' salaries to the rest of the industrialized world, and I've lost track of it. Any help?
5.12.2006 1:51am
One thing that federal judges across the political spectrum all employees of any enterprise agree on is that they deserve a raise.
5.12.2006 1:54am
Gene Summerlin (mail) (www):
One additional factor to consider is the retirement packages offered to federal judges. I believe that under current law once a judge has served for a certain number of years, that judge may retire and continue to receive his or her full compensation until death. When one considers how that compares to "private" retirement plans, that's not a bad deal.
5.12.2006 2:15am
jvarisco (www):
I'm not sure that you can compare judges to other professions; unlike just about any other job (except perhaps professors) judges are appointed for life. Ideally, absent retirement, there would be no turnover. I would be curious how the judicial turnover rate compares to that of tenured professors. Of course, most professors also end up taking a pay cut.
5.12.2006 3:12am
Paul McKaskle (mail):
I recently wrote an article about the European Court of Human Rights and happened to mention the salary of the judges. (It was relevant because some of the judges are from Eastern Europe--e.g., Bulgaria, Armenia, Latvia, etc--where even attorney salaries are very low and there is a substantial financial advantage to being on the ECHR which in turn may affect how they vote.) I compared the ECHR salaries to those of the USSC--at the current exchange for the Euro, the ECHR salaries are substantially higher (though they do not include as good retirement benefits.) A good friend in Ireland (both an extemely successful barrister and also a faculty member at Trinity College School of Law) who read my article wrote to me that he was shocked at how low the USSC salaries were--Circuit Judges in Ireland (the equivalent of a US District Judge) earn substantially more than the Chief Justice of the USSC. (I think it is also true in England, though I haven't checked those figures lately.) My Irish friend didn't comment, however, on the Irish retirement benefits.

A trial judge in the California Superior Court makes $149,000 a year, and has to put a substantial amount of that into a retirement plan, though the retirement is pretty good--3/4ths pay after 20 years on the bench and it is at least somewhat inflation indexed. I don't have any current figures, but I suspect that most faculty at the "first tier" law schools in CA--even fairly junior members--make substantially more and many faculty members (perhaps something approaching a majority) at the "lesser" CA law schools do as well. (I use "lesser" only in the context of the fraudulent US News rankings of law schools and not as an objective judgment about them.) Many of the best CA state judges (and some federal judges, too) retire as soon as possible to take up a much more lucrative career in JAMs or some other private judging organization. Does it affect the quality of the bench in CA? I'll leave that to others to consider.
5.12.2006 3:15am
Robert Schwartz (mail):
Are you an ankle biter or do you just really not know how much money it takes to support a family in the major urban areas of this country. We are paying SCOTUS Justices less than your students will be making as associates in their law firm jobs. It is rediculous.
5.12.2006 4:11am
There's are probably a lot of lawyers who would make fine federal judges, and have the resumes and politics necessary to get appointed and confirmed, but who choose not to "go on the market" [1] because of the pay. One might believe that the quality of the average entry-level judge would improve if there were more people competing for spots.

Personally, I doubt this is true, because more candidates would probably just mean that the Administration does more ideological cherry-picking when selecting nominees. This might increase philosophical uniformity on the bench but probably would not result in an increase in quality.

[1] I know not how the process works in practice, but presumably people interested in federal judgeships have to make it known that they'd be interested.
5.12.2006 4:12am
I think it is all relative. As salaries go, those numbers strike me as quite favorable. If I had ever heard in high school or undergraduate that I could have a job with those numbers, that retirement package, and possibly the best job security out there, I'd have taken it in a second.
5.12.2006 4:32am
Ilya Somin:
Are you an ankle biter or do you just really not know how much money it takes to support a family in the major urban areas of this country. We are paying SCOTUS Justices less than your students will be making as associates in their law firm jobs. It is rediculous.

1. Lots of people live in the "major urban areas of this country" and even "support a a family" on far less than $160-200,000/year.

2. If you had actually read the post, you might have noticed that I argued for "cost of living adjustments [for] judges located in particularly expensive areas."

3. Very few of my students will ever make $200,000/year as associates. Those who do will be working far more hours than SCOTUS justices, usually on less interesting matters, and with far less power, prestige, and other nonpecuniary benefits. I have little doubt that even the highest earners among my students would happily trade places with a SCOTUS justice, even if the pay was far less than $200,000.
5.12.2006 5:08am
Judge Luttig can't send his kids to college with a family income of just $170,000. In related news, more than 95% of American families can't afford to send their kids to college.
5.12.2006 8:29am
I also don't think that federal judges are dramatically underpaid in light of how desirable the job clearly remains. Which is not really surprising--there is a diminishing marginal utility to money, after all, and federal judges receive a great deal of unique compensation in terms of the nature of their job (whether you call it power, prestige, honorable service, interesting work, etc.).

Moreover, there is no way in practice that you could match the salaries that they could be earning in private practice. That is because you would really have to look at partner-level salaries, and I don't see how any reasonable pay increase could meaningfully close that gap.

Finally, I do think that the trend of appointing ever-younger judges is likely to distort things around the margins a bit. Someone like Luttig, for example, is effectively following the same career path as many of his historical fellows, but in a different order. As I see it, he effectively did his 15 years as a federal judge in the middle of his career, rather than at the end (indeed, as I recall, there was only something like seven years between the end of his Supreme Court clerkship and his nomination).

But I would think that 15 years is not actually an atypical term of service for a federal judge, at least from a historical perspective. And frankly, I see no reason to encourage ever-younger appointments and ever-longer terms of service by trying to pay federal judges enough to compensate them for not having several years as a partner/gc/etc. before becoming a judge (provided, of course, that is what they wanted in the first place).
5.12.2006 8:29am
guest fella:
One issue with pay raises (other than the obvious difficulty of getting Congress to spend more) is that no one can be paid more than the VP (who I think makes the same as the CJ). So everything else trickles down. I wonder why no one treats federal judgeships as temporary jobs, like many other high positions in government. Just because it is a lifetime appointment does not mean you have to serve for your lifetime. Do administrations require their nominees to effectively 'promise' to stay on for 10+ years? If the nomination process were quicker/easier/less contentious, I think Presidents would feel more comfortable appointing someone who says "I can only serve 4-5 years" (and in turn, this would make the nomination process quicker/easier/less contentious).
5.12.2006 8:40am
Buckland (mail):
One other data point that would be interesting -- For lawyers that entered the federal judiciary and then left before retirement, what was the pay differential between their leaving the private sector and reentering?

In many professions a short stint as a "high ranking government official" can be a good career move even if the actual government pay is less. The supposed ability to deal with those still in government employ is a career enhancement.

With attrition rates less than 1% annually, there would have to be a few that enter for a short term with the intention of leveraging that experience in a few years.
5.12.2006 10:25am
Closet Libertarian:
Roberts could be arguing for an "efficiency" wage for judges.
5.12.2006 10:51am
5.12.2006 11:08am
I think there's very little argument that judges are underpaid. Quite the contrary: they are almost indisputably overpaid.

Let's look at the facts:
(1) federal judges effectively have a lifetime appointment and, as a practical matter, cannot be replaced or removed for any reason. What private sector attorney has such job security?

(2) federal judges work vastly less than do partners at law firms (or large law firm associates, for that matter). Private sector attorneys need to bill to justify their rates -- and bill a lot. Working nights, weekends, and holidays is the norm, not the exception. Judges needn't work unless at such a rate unless they want to.

(3) The main benefit judges have: they are answerable, on a day to day level, to NO ONE. Of course they may be reversed on occasion, but, as anyone who has dealt with the federal judiciary knowns, each judge is like a monarch, ruling over a little kingdom. Utter deference need be shown. There is NO comparable position in the private sector.

(4) Judges can remain in their position even while senile or until death -- and frequently do (the "senior" status judge is worth remembering). Law firm attorneys often face mandatory retirement.

(5) Judges need do very little work -- they hire clerks who, in many cases (at the judge's sole discretion) do substantially all of the 'grunt' work of the job. And those clerks must fawn (and virtually always do fawn) over their boss, because they are dependent on that judge for references after their 1-2 years of service conclude.

Viewing all of this in toto, the only position that comes close to this is a cushy faculty appointment (say, at Harvard). But even there, it's not so common for professors to be paid as they become senile and die. And Harvard professors don't rule as plenipotentiaries over little kingdoms where attorneys and parties must kneel. And they don't decide the cutting issues of the day.

And professors do NOT have the one, most important, remaining factor federal judges enjoy: enormous career freedom and opportunity.

Any time a federal judge desires, she can retire from the judiciary and reap the millions of dollars in fees as a private attorney that her former connections and position will permit her. One need only think of Ken Starr (who made millions at Kirkland &Ellis after his judgeship) or, now, Luttig (who will undoubtedly make millions at Boeing).

Arguments for greater pay under these circumstances are weak, to say the very least.
5.12.2006 11:20am
Adam Scales (mail):
I don't find Professor Somin's tentative conclusions plausible, but I agree that it will probably be very difficult to demonstrate that current rates of pay depress the supply of quality judges, despite anecodtal evidence. Perhaps we should think about the question this way:

Why do people become federal judges? I recently ran into a former student of mine, 6 years out, who is earning $250,000/year. As usual, I reconsidered whether I'd made the correct choice in my career as a law professor, and - as always - I concluded that the answer was YES. I simply have no interest in private practice. Thus, salary is a relatively less important criterion for me.

For many of the reasons I became a professor, though not all, I would love to be a somewhat undercompensated federal judge. But, law professors are unusual.

It is my impression that most federal judges are people were successful private attorneys, yet not necessarily predisposed to the solitary life of a judge. I suspect that most look on it as prestigious and a new challenge, and of course a form of service. I doubt - though I do not know - that they typically feel it as a "calling", as most academics necessarily do.

If I am correct, then low salaries relative to private practice are probably more of a disincentive than Professor Somin suspects. That is, salary is a factor that weights more heavily than prestige, etc. - at least more heavily than someone who feels that he was born to be a judge. Although there is no obvious shortage of qualified potential nominees, I would expect that, compared with law professors, one quickly pierces the stratum within the pool of candidates for whom salary is a highly relevant consideration.

I think this kind of data could be obtained (who are the judges, and why are they judges), but it would be hard to know what to do with it. My predicted diminution in judicial quality is unlikely to be detectable in a filed of 1000 or so judges. In fact, because we will still see the occasional Luttig, we might erroneously conclude that there is no impact on quality at all.
5.12.2006 11:33am
Tom952 (mail):
Congressional salaries are a factor here. Congress is loath to see Judges earn more than lawmakers. After all, who is more important? However, Congressional salaries are restrained by the burden of being re-elected.

Judges can live pretty well (not lavishly) on their current salaries, and there are perks as well.
5.12.2006 11:43am
Steve Lubet (mail):
There are decent arguments in favor of raising judges' pay, but fear of attrition isn't one of them. Indeed, the facts prove just the opposite.

It was 1976 when Chief Justice Warren
Burger first announced that a pay crisis threatened a "brain drain" from the federal judiciary; that
bleak prognosis -- repeated by Rehnquist at regular intervals, including a warning in 1988 that
"approximately 30 percent" of federal judges "planned to resign before retirement" -- has yet to
come true.

As Ilya notes, the actual annual turnover rate is under 1%. In any other industry that would be considered far too low. The likely truth is that we would be better off if more federal judges were to resign or retire. That would make appointments less contentious and it would constantly reinvigorate the institution.
5.12.2006 12:04pm
Kevin L. Connors (mail) (www):
Guest fella: "One issue with pay raises (other than the obvious difficulty of getting Congress to spend more) is that no one can be paid more than the VP (who I think makes the same as the CJ). So everything else trickles down."

You neglected the Speaker of the House, they currently all make $208,100/yr. (by Salary Reform Act of 1989). However, the VP also receives a $10,000 taxable expense allowance.

However, all elected officials have access to a (generally substantial) campaign warchest. And the ethics rules on what can be considered "campaign expenses," particularly for members of the House, are extremely liberal.

Here in OC, or out on the westside, where Eugene (and, I would assume, most of the other UCLA profs.) lives, a "comfortable", but still middle-class lifestyle (let by the astronomical cost of housing) requires a family income in the low six-range. Of course, if one's spouse, is also enjoying a professional-level income, that bumps the household to a level most would consider "wealthy".
5.12.2006 12:20pm
dfslk (mail):
One question that always goes unanswered is what the salaries would have to be raised to in order to make being a judge a good job from a fiscal perspective. Given that a federal appeals court judge makes more than most lawyers that are not working at large firms, I suppose that the measure must be what large firm lawyers make. Many large firm partners now make on average a million dollars a year (especially those partners that would be experienced and known enough to be nominated). Are we really going to pay judges that much? You might say that we need only raise it to 350,000 or 500,000 - both extremely high numbers for the majority of Americans. But if a partner at a large firm doesn't want to become a judge because of the pay cut, is it really going to change that many minds if the pay cut is only 500,000 versus 800,000?

Also, more research needs to be done on what those poverty-stricken judges are doing once they head to private practice. Many, no doubt, become vigorous partners working just as much as others do. I suspect, however, that many others become names and faces that the firms use as selling points (we can have a former federal appeals court judge sign your brief!), even if the judge has no intention of taking on a full case load. In the latter category, I don't think any raise for federal judges is going to stop judges from leaving and accepting some easy money from the big firm for a few years.

Quite frankly, I think the real problem isn't that the pool of willing candidates isn't big enough, but that the pool of lawyers that the folks in Washington are willing to consider (i.e., those people they worked with in the Justice Department, those people they clerked with on the Supreme Court, those people that were head of their state election committees) is too small.
5.12.2006 12:26pm
Is attrition really a good surrogate for what we're trying to measure here? The underlying issue, it seems to me, is whether the judiciary is failing to attract people we'd want to see on the bench. Looking at attrition limits your universe to people who were willing to take the job in the first place. And the 1% who leave (assuming they did so for financial reasons) consist of people who initially thought that $170k would be enough, but changed their minds -- a fairly specialized subset. I'd be more interested in who's being deterred by salary considerations, despite the personal and professional rewards of being a judge. An interesting side issue, of course, is whether we want to attract such economically-driven people to the bench, or whether we prefer those who want the job for its own sake and will be satisfied with a comfortable upper middle class salary.

There may be good news in the low attrition figures, because they may reflect ways in which a federal judgeship is more economically advantageous than the salary figures suggest. This (relatively, of course) low-salaried job has "golden handcuffs," in the form of a guaranteed salary for life for those who serve 15 years. (The length of service requirement is progressively reduced for those over 65.) So those appointed at age 50 or older will make a considerable financial sacrifice if they leave before retirement age. A judge may also hope to offset inflation with salary increases up until retirement, and may continue to participate in salary increases by going on active senior status. (I'm not sure if judges participate in the federal equivalent of a 401k, the Thrift Savings Plan, but if so, that's an additional kicker.)

Contrast a private-practice lawyer. Assuming no pension (a good assumption for lawyers in private practice), a lawyer would have to amass a principal sum of perhaps $1.5 - $2 million in order to hope for investment income of $160-170k per year. That's just an expectation -- it's not backed by the credit of the U.S. government -- and it's got no inflation adjustment. The federal judge essentially gets the equivalent of this investment income but is relieved of the necessity of amassing the corpus.
5.12.2006 12:54pm
Goober (mail):
I'm not going to delve into the central question of whether judges are paid enough (judging from the comments here, that seems to be a matter of personal pique more than reasoned argument), but for comparison's sake, starting salaries for associates at the hundred or so biggest firms in NYC is $145,000, plus bonus (if any)---or roughly equal to the salary of a District Judge in a good bonus year. Fourth-year associates make $190,000 plus bonus---more than any federal judge not sitting on the Supreme Court, and with a good bonus more than even them. Once you talk about senior associate salaries it's not even close, and let alone partner comp, which isn't even in the same ballpark.
5.12.2006 1:05pm
Hattio (mail):
Here's kind of a side note. Do we really want more "superstar" lawyers on the bench? These are the type of lawyers who might handle 10 cases a year at trial. Do we want those attorneys settling precedent that public defenders and DA's (who are often in 2-3 trials a month or more) have to try to follow. Having more lawyers who know what a case load of 100 to 300 clients takes might make for some better case law. I guess I am especially thinking about criminal law. It seems that often the standards for suppressing evidence etc., require such a high burden of proof that its often impossible to meet. Attorneys who have 10 criminal cases and an army of associates and investigators to gather and pour through research are going to find some burdens more "reasonable" than those who have 100 cases to handle with one investigator who is shared by 5 other attorneys who also have 100 cases.
5.12.2006 1:09pm
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
I for one would be willing to make the terrrible sacrifice and accept that salary, if only out of duty.

I think that for every judge that leaves for private practice, there a several hundred equally qualified people in private practice who would give their eye teeth to get his position.

The ones who have the REALLY cushy jobs are the magistrates. I think they make 90% of the district judge's pay, and at least here mainly do initial appearences, maybe 3-4 hours a day. Then they get a month's paid vacation a year, plus another 2-3 weeks at the Ninth Circuit conference, which for some reason is always held in Hawaii -- meaning not only paid vacation, but all expenses paid. Plus of course federal health insurance benefits, retirement benefits, etc., etc.
5.12.2006 1:18pm
Public_Defender (mail):
One effect of judicial pay is to create a ceiling for most other government-paid lawyers. To use a personal example, you can't give a staff public defender more than a supervisory public defender. You can't give a supervisory public defender more than the chief public defender. You can't give the chief public defender more money than a local judge. You can't give a local judge more money than an appellate judge. Etc., etc., etc.

When looking at judicial pay, don't compare them to associates or entry level management. Consider them as the top partner or CEO.

Imagine if a Fortunate 500 company had to limit the compensation of its CEO to $220K. Now think about how that would affect salaries all the way down.

Federal judges (especially U.S. Supreme Court Justices) are the top management of the U.S. judicial system. When you limit their pay, you limit the pay of government lawyers everywhere. You may think that's a good idea, but it does limit the pool of people willing to take the jobs.
5.12.2006 1:26pm
Are you an ankle biter or do you just really not know how much money it takes to support a family in the major urban areas of this country. We are paying SCOTUS Justices less than your students will be making as associates in their law firm jobs. It is rediculous.

Prof. Somin already did a fine job of pointing out the lunacy of this, but how distorted a worldview does one have to have to post something like this? Do you not know anyone who is a bus driver, a construction worker, a plumber, a cop, or even a public defender or legal aid attorney? Maybe those people don't live in Chicago, LA, New York, etc.? Oh, no, wait, maybe they do. Maybe they don't have families? Well, at any rate, who knows these people anyway? I mean, really, lawyers tend to live in a bubble, but Robert Schwartz has taken this to all-time new heights.
5.12.2006 1:31pm
Also, anyone who is making over $170K and doesn't know how to spell "ridiculous" is overpaid.
5.12.2006 1:36pm
Kevin L. Connors (mail) (www):
I don't know too much about the depth of the vacancy problem on the federal bench. But I know one exists. Here in California, we have a pretty substantial problem. This has been made worse a couple of years ago, when the state CJ said retired judges who did any private arbitration couldn't fill vacancies on the Assigned Judge Program, where they'd make about 1/10 the rate.
5.12.2006 1:41pm
U.Va. 0L (mail):
Excellent comment. I hadn't thought of the issue from that perspective.
5.12.2006 1:47pm
te (mail):
The comparison between judges and 1st year associates is just tiresome and wrongheaded. As several posters have noted, very very few associates get jobs starting at $150K. I will take a wild guess and say it is 200-300 or so. They do it for a few years and the vast majority leave or get booted out within 5 years.

You also have to consider that most of thos 1st yr associates put in 80 or 100 hours per week under incredible stress while most judges I have dealt with seldom work more than 40 or 50 hrs per week of real work and command a little kingdom. Under this standard, judges are overpaid.
5.12.2006 1:49pm
Closet Libertarian (www):

Were you responding to the Efficiency wage explanation? If so, why not? It doesn't have to apply just to low end jobs.

Secondly, I know a few judges personally and all of them had to take pay cuts from their previous jobs. Especially the county judges.

Perhaps this is a sign that lawyers are overpaid rather than judges being under paid, but until that problem is fixed the opportunity cost of being a judge is pretty high for many of them.

If the retirement is really as generous as Gene says, then the solution may be to convert some of the retierment into salary.
5.12.2006 1:50pm
Dave-TuCents (www):
It may be a trivial point, but "cost of living adjustments to judges located in particularly expensive areas such as New York or San Francisco" is a bad idea. Those areas are expensive because they are desirable. From an economic standpoint, people who live there do so because the added cost of living is worth it to them in exchange for the other amenities available. It would be exactly as justifiable to give 'quality of living adjustments to judges located in areas of less desirability' so they could have the same lifestyle as their more metropolitan colleagues.

If the cost is too high for you in the city, either move out or admit that saving the commuting time is worth the expense to you. And if it's worth it, why should you be compensated further for your economic choice? If the cost is too high for the government employees, move their offices into the suburbs where their money goes further. That is just the same as a pay raise, if you want to ignore the benefits of living and working downtown. It also decreases other associated expenses, but saving taxpayer money is never a major issue.
5.12.2006 2:01pm
Max - if you're not living in one of the toniest neighborhoods in the city, sending your kids to private schools, and paying the full cost of your kids' tuition at an elite private college and a professional school, then you're not "supporting your kids." Those police officers, public defenders, bus drivers, who can't do any of those things? They don't exist.

And people accuse liberals of being elitists. Ugh.
5.12.2006 2:30pm
paul whiehurst (mail):
I would suggest that in the days of ideological battles over federal court vacancies turnovers in those seats is a good thing. The ideologues pressure the president to appoint judges with the understanding that they will serve for life. If the appointees set a precedent that they would retire after a few years of service this would make those seats less coveted by the idealogues because there would be plenty of vacancies to be filled every time an administration changes.

Most federal judges I know consider their job as a matter of public service rather than a means to get a nice check and a good retirement. Still, they seem to get settled into the job. They need to develop a mind set that the job is just temporary and that there are plenty of other equally qualified candidates for the jobs when they leave.
5.12.2006 3:04pm
byrd (mail):
If judgships are underpaid, causing a drop in interest in the position, then why do judges in my town pay the local political machine so much for their appointments?
5.12.2006 3:33pm
Minor point:

As the late Chief Justice William Renquist used to insist, the proper title is "Chief Justice of the United States," not "Chief Justice of the Supreme Court."
5.12.2006 3:48pm
Public_Defender (mail):
Thanks, U.Va. 0L. I don't think many people outside of government understand how the pay of people at the top affects those of us nearer the bottom.

And I was not trying to make some cute social comment by discussing the "Fortunate 500." I meant the "Fortune 500."
5.12.2006 3:53pm
Why is it an implausible assumption that money was the motivating factor for all 59 judges who left the bench in favor of private practice? Why else would anyone leave the bench for private practice?
5.12.2006 5:27pm
Kevin L. Connors (mail) (www):
SLS 1L, "...if you're not living in one of the toniest neighborhoods... Those police officers..."

Two reality check points here: First; homes in the "toniest" neighborhoods in SoCal start around $5M - and don't count on good finish cabinets or landscaping at that price. And; we have lots of "beat cops" (sargent or lower) here, which are making (with overtime) more than superior court judges.
5.12.2006 8:37pm
Kevin L. Connors (mail) (www):
Oh, but I'll admit that judges are slightly less likely to get shot at than beat cops. But the free donut perk is a toss-up.
5.12.2006 8:40pm
I asked my US Gov. teacher the other day, and she didn't know. Is the pension for a federal judge based on the rate of pay at retirement or is it adjusted to the current salary? If anyone could post the answer in the comments, it would be greatly appreciated.
5.12.2006 10:01pm
Ilya Somin:
Is the pension for a federal judge based on the rate of pay at retirement or is it adjusted to the current salary?

The pension is based on the judge's salary at the time of retirement. However, federal judges who have reached the age of 65 and have served 15 years also have the option of taking "senior" status. If they do so, they will have about 25% of the workload of an active judge, but also get full pay AND benefit from any future pay increases that Congress grants to active judges.
5.12.2006 10:57pm
Thanks Mr. Somin
5.12.2006 11:15pm
Kevin L. Connors (mail) (www):
Yes, great answer, Ilya. Just what I would have said - although I would have spent 1/2 hr. confirming it.

But (regardless of his/her indicated satisfaction) does that really address cp's question? I'm thinking pension adjustments, relative to current salaries. I think this was covered in the Salary Reform Act. But it's now the wee-smalls for me, and I'm off to bed. I leave it to other, smarter, souls than I.
5.13.2006 4:33am
Goober (mail):

The comparison between judges and 1st year associates is just tiresome and wrongheaded. As several posters have noted, very very few associates get jobs starting at $150K. I will take a wild guess and say it is 200-300 or so. They do it for a few years and the vast majority leave or get booted out within 5 years.

Um, sorry to offend you so much, but you're off base, unless you meant 200--300 from either of either Columbia or NYU law schools, both of which probably dumped about that many into the new-associates market last year. $145 starting is market in New York City---that means every firm in the top tier (a tier that's none too narrow) pays it. I would guess between 60 and 120 NYC firms are paying $145 to starting associates. Each of those law firms hires as many as 100 new associates each year---Debevoise had more than 100 summers a few years back, but obviously most hire quite a bit fewer than that, but they're all hiring 25-30 per year at the low end. So even if you were to take the most conservative estimate from this (60 firms paying market, each hiring only 25 new associates per year), you'd conclude that 1,500 new associates were graduating law school, taking the bar, and settling down to the same salary as district judges (although that's probably more of a stretch with the newly adjusted numbers). A more realistic estimate (say, 100 firms hiring an average of 40 new associates) would put the number at four thousand, and it very well may be quite a bit more. And that's only in New York; I believe market in LA is $135 starting, SF/Palo Alto is probably around $130 starting, DC should still be $125 starting, etc., and all of those cities have a lot of law firms.

You're correct as to turnover (although you're probably a little pessimistic about average hours worked, but not much), but I fail to see the relevance.

And while you conclude that judges are overpaid by "this standard," it's a little silly to compare federal judges' wage-per-hour worked against first-year associates and find that they make too much, as these judges, should they enter the private sector, would be entering as counsel/partner, not as first years. If any of these judges retired and put their services up to the highest private bidder, they'd probably get a $200K raise at a minimum, and probably closer to a half mill. That seems like a more relevant comparison, especially if you're worried about retention, not some abstract issue of global justice and How Much Is a Worker Worth kind of thing.
5.13.2006 4:36pm