How Much Should Judges Get Paid?

Uh, oh.

In his first year-end report Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. repeats the dubious claim his predecessor William H. Rehnquist made for years: the Republic will fall unless Congress immediately increases the salaries of federal judges.

Roberts says that the low current pay is a “direct threat to judicial independence” because it means judges can serve only “for a term dictated by their financial position rather than for life.” Judges will be forced to take more lucrative private jobs to support themselves in old age. Unless salaries increase substantially, Roberts claims, the federal bench will become less diverse because only the “independently wealthy” will be able to serve.

Federal district court judges make $165,200 a year. Circuit court judges make $175,100. Associate justices rake in $203,000. And the Chief Justice himself is paid $212,100.

Is it really so difficult to make ends meet on these princely sums?

Sure, lawyers in private practice can earn much more. Partners at top-flight firms make several million dollars annually. But federal judges have way more interesting jobs with all kinds of wonderful perks, including a permanent place in history.

If the “low” salary means some people don’t apply to be judges, then so be it. After all, does a lawyer who is in it for the money really have the right temperament to be a judge? Does the average American have a decent chance of receiving justice before somebody who considers a six-figure income a vow of poverty?

Chief Justice Roberts points in his report to the recent increase in the number of federal judges leaving the bench for private practice. That’s too bad. But would the judge who is scraping by on $165,000 (or more) really stick around for the 30% increase Roberts is asking Congress for?

For the record, when jurors serve in federal court they earn $40 per day plus bus fare.

By that standard, judges are paid very nicely, thank you.

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7 Responses

  1. Dave! says:

    My word, how do they make ends meet?

    Now excuse me, I have a ham and mayonnaise dinner awaiting me at my mansion.

  2. SCOTUSblog says:

    Blog Round-Up- Sunday, January 1st

    Here is Concurring Opinions with a post on judges’ salaries. In his first year-end report Chief Justice Roberts argues that Congress should immediately increases the salaries of federal judges. The Washington Posts’ Campaign for the Supreme Court has t…

  3. Marie Carnes says:

    Hey, we should all try that logic on our bosses the next time we ask for a raise.

  4. I’m of two minds about the issue. Although the salaries are generous compared to what most people make, they are low compared to what judges could be making if they were in private practice. A partner at a big law firm might pull in four to five times what a judge makes. This would suggest that judicial pay is far too low; judges shouldn’t have to eye with envy their colleagues of comparable age and experience.

    On the other hand, are the low salaries having an impact on judicial recruitment? I rarely hear stories of difficulty in filling the ranks of the federal judiciary. There are few cases of folks saying: “No, I don’t want to be a justice on the Supreme Court because the salary’s too low.” I have yet to see empirical evidence that the pay has an effect on getting good people to be federal judges. And if there is no effect here, isn’t this an indication that the salary level is just about right?

    There’s another consideration, however. Perhaps the low salaries (compared to private practice) might induce more judges to retire early rather than stay on the bench until the bitter end. On some accounts, this is a bad thing, as it subtly impacts the lifetime tenure of judges — if the pay is so bad, most judges will not serve lifetime terms and will retire early to return to private practice. On the other hand, maybe this is a good thing. Maybe judges shouldn’t serve for eternity and stay on the bench when they are too old. The low salary may be a way to ameliorate some of the downsides to lifetime tenure.

    But then there’s the issue of whether this has differential effects on who stays on as a judge. The less wealthy judges will retire; those who are very rich will stay. If these are the effects, then it might skew the judiciary toward the more wealthy (and generally, federal judges are fairly wealthy folks to begin with).

    I don’t know the answer, but I think that the considerations above should be part of the analysis.

  5. Paul McKaskle says:

    Something else which should be taken into account is what benefits are recieved by judges.

    I don’t think they need to contribute to their retirement, and the retirement is a generous one (although at one time it was very poor for dependent spouses, but I think that has been changed). Short of complete retirement, when a judge is eligible he or she can take senior status, full pay and a reduced (possibly very reduced) caseload. I don’t know what the medical coverage is, but I expect it is very good while on the bench, and likely to be good upon retirement. (It would be interesting to get information about this.) There is always an annual circuit conference, usually at a posh resort, and at least some eastern and northern judges can come on assignment to southern and western courts during winter months. (Check the number of ninth circuit opinions which include a member of the panel from a more northeasterly court.) Admittedly this is not as attractive as a lucrative private practice, and is not as good as private judging–at least if the judge has a good reputation.

    In the CA state courts, the judges are paid substantially less and have to make a substantial after tax contribution to retirement. They do get the maximum pension after 20 years, and as a result a lot of the best judges have gone into private judging long before a normal retirement age. This is a loss for the courts in terms of quality of judges and also a loss for the other judges because so many of the more interesting civil cases are no longer in the courts.

    It is a nice populist view that judges should not be paid very much, but what is the effect on the quality of judges. Some zealot who wants the “power” of a judge to remake the world according to his or her own vision and doesn’t care about money isn’t necessarily the best person to be a judge. Better pay doesn’t eliminate this kind of person, but it does mean that others would be interested in the job.

    And, yes, $165,000 is a good salary, but if one has two or three kids going to college it can be very expensive, and tuition is paid from after tax income. If a kid then goes on to medical school, for example, tuition can be in the neighborhood of $50,000 a year. Of course college and graduate school expenses are only transitory, but if you won’t be able to pay these expenses because you are a federal judge, it is a real disinsentive to making a mid-career switch to being a judge.

  6. Truthmonger says:

    Ok, it is late and I’m writing notes for trial tomorrow. Part of it is to ask the “Judge” or rather the person pretending to be a Judge, who signs his/her checks. I googled it and can’t find squat except in Indiana. I’m in Va. today. I want to know because if the “state” signs their check and the prosecuting attorney represents the state then there is a clear conflict of interest!!!! Hello. Guess I’ll have to ask them in the “court”, excuse me the meeting room, owned by … the state? With police all around paid by the ..state? With a “court clerk”, paid by.. the state?? Sounds a bit like the wolves, for the wolves, by the wolves to determine the edibility of the sheep to me. Hmmmm also a note, Judges are not supposed to “Judge” anything!!! Only a Jury can. Unless it is a civil matter with value of controversy below 20 dollars. Also, a “Judge” Is merely supposed to insure that “order” is maintained and believe it or not, to insure that the defendants “rights” all of them are protected. The only reason they need to know the law, especially the Constitution of which they have sworn an oath to, is to insure that a persons rights are protected. period!!!! Oh, how much do teachers make? Oh but wait a minute they get paid by the ,,, State too, don’t they? Hmm, ok how much does a mother of two or more get paid for a few hours of keeping the peace and insuring that each kids rights are not infringed?? Or, I know; a ref. at a ball game??

    One other quick note before I go, If the Constitution sais “WE the people of the United States” and not “WE the People” and the United States is a Corporation, then why do we keep making ourselves subject to their corporate charter and rules? It’s their government for them! We are self governing, remember?? Oh that’s right you were brain washed by the teachers paid by the other corporate entities.. the state. Which I guess explains why all the free and clean energy devices that have been around for a long time have been buried so the fossil fuels could pollute and cause global warming. But you trust them because they have authority “over” you right?? That is like willingly succumbing to cancer. It will kill you even though your death means its death. It is mindless and you have to start using yours and get rid of it in you first!!

  7. max says:

    judges only make on average like 200,000 a year… the thing people forget though is that a lot of judges are partners at law firms making pretty numbers.