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Chief Justice John Roberts Renews But Scales Back His Call for a Judicial Pay Increase:

Chief Justice John Roberts has renewed his call for a federal judicial pay increase in his 2008 Year End Report on the Federal Judiciary. This is hardly a surprise. Roberts and his predecessors have been calling for a pay increase for many years now.

I criticized the Chief Justice's earlier arguments for a pay increase in a series of posts in 2006 and 2007 (in reverse chronological order, see here, here, here, and here). Nothing in the Chief Justice's most recent report leads me to change my mind. I still think that there is no evidence that salaries are too low to attract and retain quality judges and that total judicial compensation is actually quite high once we take account of the non-salary benefits of being a federal judge, including generous pensions, prestige, and excellent hours and working conditions.

However, it's worth noting that this year's report is a lot less hyperbolic than its predecessors. The 2006 report (which I criticized in this post) claimed that low judicial pay is causing a "constitutional crisis." Last year's report argued that failure to increase judicial pay might imperil "the critical role of our courts in preserving individual liberty, promoting commerce, protecting property, and ensuring that every person who appears in an American court can expect fair and impartial justice." This year's report largely avoids such rhetorical excesses. Indeed, the Chief Justice now emphasizes that "the judiciary remains strong" and that it "is resilient and can weather the occasional neglect that is often the fate of those who quietly do their work." Also, the 2006 report argued for a "substantial" pay increase, while this year's merely calls for "judicial compensation that keeps pace with inflation." I actually agree that adjusting judicial pay to inflation might be a desirable reform (as I noted in my very first post on this subject), though I doubt that the consequences of failing to enact this change will be anywhere near as dire as the Chief Justice predicts. Unfortunately, the report does not entirely make clear whether the Chief Justice is asking Congress to adjust judicial pay to inflation going forward or whether he is still urging Congress to raise judicial pay to the level it would be at had it been adjusted for cost of living increases throughout the last 20 years (as he advocated in the 2007 report). I favor the former reform, but believe that the latter is unnecessary.

It is pretty much inevitable that the Chief Justice will argue for increased judicial pay. After all, representing the interests of his fellow federal judges is more or less part of his job. Given that constraint, I think that this year's report demonstrates a praiseworthy rollback of the excessive demands and rhetoric of previous years.

UPDATE: For readers who may be interested, current salaries for federal judges are as follows:

Chief Justice of the Supreme Court: $217,400

Associate Justice: 208,100

Circuit (Court of Appeals) Judge: 179,500

District (trial) Judge: 169,300

Note that these figures don't include non-salary compensation, such as an excellent health care plan and extremely generous pension benefits.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Chief Justice John Roberts Renews But Scales Back His Call for a Judicial Pay Increase:
  2. Judicial Pay: Another Perspective
Perseus (mail):
After all, representing the interests of his fellow federal judges is more or less part of his job.

I've seen this point made several times now, but why is the crass pursuit of higher salaries for federal judges regarded as part of the "job" of the Chief Justice of the United States?
1.2.2009 4:08pm
Andrew J. Lazarus (mail):
Perhaps what is needed is less extravagant pay for top lawyers in private practice.
1.2.2009 4:14pm
Steve H:
For what it's worth, here is an attempt to evaluate the highly generous pension benefits, i.e., the guaranteed lifetime salary after reaching retirement age.
1.2.2009 4:24pm
autolykos:

Perhaps what is needed is less extravagant pay for top lawyers in private practice.


Who exactly should this "extravagent pay" be redistributed to?
1.2.2009 4:24pm
PhanTom:
I am curious what kind of health insurance members of the federal judiciary currently receive.

Prior to becoming a state judge, my mother was an employee of the State of Alaska. The health insurance policy we had while I was growing up was almost unimaginably good. We had no co-pays, 100% coverage, and full prescription coverage. The current benefits provided by the State of Alaska are no longer quite so generous.

--PtM
1.2.2009 4:27pm
Kedar Bhatia (mail) (www):
To respond to Perseus, his task is to report on the state of the federal judiciary and if he thinks low pay is impacting the stay state of the federal judiciary, he should report that to Congress.
1.2.2009 4:28pm
John P. Lawyer (mail):
district court judges are severely underpaid. the rest - not so much
1.2.2009 4:29pm
Allan (mail):
JPL, you seem to be saying that an extra $10K for district judges -- or about 6 percent of their current base, would take them out of the "severely underpaid" category.
1.2.2009 4:35pm
autolykos:

To respond to Perseus, his task is to report on the state of the federal judiciary and if he thinks low pay is impacting the stay state of the federal judiciary, he should report that to Congress.


Is that what he's doing? The salaries cited by Ilya seem to have almost no basis in retention and much more in some amorphous idea of fairness. Do you need to pay the CJ more than an AJ to get them to stay on the Court (or to take the job in the first place)? Do you need to pay an AJ $210K/year to get people to take the job?

Most of the whining I hear from the judiciary has more to do with the fact Circuit and District Judges are paid less than the know-nothing first years at large law firms (ignoring retention rates). While I can't disagree with the idea of a COLA, it's only necessary if you think you're at a point now where decreases will have a negative effect. Until I hear of someone turning down the job of Chief Justice (or even thinking of doing so), I guess I'm skeptical.
1.2.2009 4:43pm
Dave N (mail):
I am still waiting to see if Paul Cassell comments on this topic--and what those comments might be, since he is the Conspirator who has been most directly affected by federal judicial pay rates.
1.2.2009 4:47pm
ConSpiraCy:
Perhaps this is an attempt to prevent a call for "more" federal judges that would give Obama a mini court-packing vehicle?
1.2.2009 5:07pm
Patrick216:
The biggest thing I think we need is to have judicial pay tied to locales. In my own market, $160k and $170k are more than sufficiently generous salaries to attract and retain quality federal judges. Not so in New York, Boston, DC, or California.
1.2.2009 6:08pm
swg:
Do you think that the more moderate rhetoric reflects his changed beliefs about the matter, or might it be strategic? I bet Roberts believes his plea more likely to succeed if he appears more tempered and objective.
1.2.2009 6:15pm
krs:
Nothing in the Chief Justice's most recent report leads me to change my mind

Have you ever posted anything at the VC and subsequently been led to change your mind?
1.2.2009 6:36pm
CheckEnclosed (mail):
How could low pay be considered more of a disincentive to seek federal judgeship than the current state of the confirmation process? Candidates can have their approval stuck in limbo by secret holds based on obscure grudges among members of the World's Greatest Deliberative Body, or overt payback based on how long it took for the other party's President to get his nomimees approved -- and that's just to get to a confrimation hearing.

Once there, the nominee is required to listen to bloviating Senators grandsstand for the cameras, at the possible expense of deliberately smearing the nominee's reputation, his private life, and that of his family members. The same people who think it's okay to breed an economic environment where no one can run an agricultural, restaurant or construction business without hiring illegal aliens will pretend to get the vapors at the thought that a nominee ever hired a baby-sitter without making sure she was here legally and withhoding taxes.

If you're a successful attorney, academic, or state judge, you're not going to volunteer for this process because of the paycheck.
1.2.2009 7:10pm
glangston (mail):
Apparently the retirement benefits are equal to about $60,000 per year.


I say give them a raise overall but no government health care insurance or guaranteed pension. Let them survive in these markets like the rest of us and purchase their own.
1.2.2009 7:40pm
PersonFromPorlock:
Would the Chief Justice care to name those who would be replaced by higher-quality judges if higher wages were available?
1.2.2009 8:41pm
Jerry F:
This is somewhat of a stupid question, but do federal employees pay federal income taxes of their salary? I assumed that they did at the same rate as everyone else but thought it'd be good to ask.
1.2.2009 8:59pm
themighthypuck (mail):
The reason to pay judges high wages is to decrease corruption. The prestige associated with the bench might cause one to feel poor as compared to one's peers in other professions. Obviously this argument can't ever be pressed.
1.3.2009 12:43am
Tom Tildrum:
Jerry F: Yes we do.
1.3.2009 1:24am
rz:
For comparison, based on some Googling:

English Judicial Salaries

Lord Chief Justice - £230,400 - US$333,066
Lords Justices of Appeal - £188,900 - US$273,074
High Court Judges - £165,900 - US$239,825

Canadian Judicial Salaries

Chief Justice of Canada - C$334,100 - US$275,773
Justice of the Supreme Court - C$309,300 - US$255,303
Justices of Courts of Appeal and Superior Trial Courts - C$252,000 - US$208,007
1.3.2009 2:27pm
Gordon:
I believe his title is Chief Justice of the United States, not Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
1.3.2009 3:10pm
Public_Defender (mail):
The Chief Justice's earlier arguments are proof that you can weaken your case by opening your mouth. If you argue that judges need to be paid more because the turnover is so high, you admit that turnover is a key criteria for determining the appropriate judicial wage. So when you turn out to be dead wrong (if not dishonest) about the amount of turnover, you have just hurt your case.

To those who know Chief Justice Roberts, could you please try to explain why he would make an argument that is so clearly wrong that it borders on the dishonest. That was not his reputation.
1.3.2009 3:23pm
david (mail):
In other words, a District Court makes about as much as a first year associate in a Biglaw firm. Nothing wrong with that, huh?
1.3.2009 7:04pm
Public_Defender (mail):

In other words, a District Court makes about as much as a first year associate in a Biglaw firm. Nothing wrong with that, huh?

An elected prosecutor makes far less than a first year associate in a Biglaw firm. Nothing wrong with that, huh?

Assistant prosecuting attorneys make far less than a first year associate in a Biglaw firm. Nothing wrong with that, huh?

The US Attorney for a federal district makes less than a first year associate in a Biglaw firm. Nothing wrong with that, huh?

Assistant US Attorneys make far less than a first year associate in a Biglaw firm. Nothing wrong with that, huh?

Most state judges make less than a first year associate in a Biglaw firm. Nothing wrong with that, huh?

Etc., etc., etc.

* * *

The reality is that government lawyers, including judges, make less than private sector lawyers. If you're going to correct that imbalance, there are thousands of other lawyers who "deserve" raises more than federal district court judges. If turnover is the measure (as Roberts suggested last year), then federal judges are probably pretty much dead last in the line for raises.
1.3.2009 7:52pm
sandy valencour (mail):
Well whinning in this day and age won't do it. All of us are suffering. Perhaps Bush bought those judges that took away our rights so is this a hidden threat. They make enough money if you count the perks that go along with the job. As they tell us "little people", if ya don't like it, go someplace else.
1.3.2009 8:10pm
AnonLawStudent:

The reality is that government lawyers, including judges, make less than private sector lawyers. If you're going to correct that imbalance, there are thousands of other lawyers who "deserve" raises more than federal district court judges.

Perhaps true, but beside the point.
(1) The judge is the single critical point in the judicial system; we both want and need the brightest legal minds to occupy the position of federal judge. In other positions where the government seeks the best-and-brightest, the pay is at least comparable to the private sector. For example, scientists and engineers in the nuclear weapons program are are compensated at competitive levels that are well above the traditional federal pay scale.
(2) Having decided that the judge is the critical position to be filled, how are we to determine which of the thousands of lawyers are most qualified for the job? Perhaps we limit our selection to those who have demonstrated their intellect through undergraduate grades, such that they were admitted to the nation's top law schools. We further limit our selection to those who have demonstrated superior legal thought through success at those top law schools. Finally, we limit our applicant pool to those who have demonstrated legal acumen through success in the most complex cases; these individuals most commonly hold the designation "partner" at a white shoe law firm. It's not the status of partner vel non that is important; it is the proxy for qualifications that the status represents.
(3) Having established that such an individual is the desired candidate, how do we obtain his services? The simple reality is that he will demand a wage that will permit him to maintain his station in life.
1.3.2009 10:27pm
Public_Defender (mail):

The judge is the single critical point in the judicial system;

I disagree, especially when you talk about federal judges. State court judges as a group are far more important because they resolve far more disputes.

But even taking your point, no one has shown that increasing federal pay will increase the quality of federal judges. Increasing the pay of other critical parts of the judicial system would likely have a far greater impact on quality because those parts suffer from extraordinarily high turnover (rookie prosecutors often handle the most serious indictments, for example). By contrast, federal judges almost never quit.
1.4.2009 7:31am

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