After Chief Justice Roberts called for judicial pay raises in his annual State of the Courts address, a few students asked my thoughts. Judges are underpaid, in the same way that teachers are underpaid: their salaries don’t reflect their worth to society and are inadequate compared to what they could earn in related fields. Judicial salaries will never be fully competitive with, say, those available in private practice, nor should private-sector parity be the sole benchmark for the adequacy of judicial pay. One generally becomes a judge (or a teacher) for reasons not driven primarily by compensation. Most judges care deeply about, and are good at, what they do. There are always exceptions, of course, but I don’t perceive a pervasive lack of judicial quality. I’m speaking here as an outside observer, not a trial lawyer. I might have a different opinion if I argued in court regularly, but I’m not convinced that an extra $50,000/year would address what irked me. If a judge is incompetent it reflects the appointment process more than a lack of qualified applicants. I’m also speaking as someone who lives in a state with appointed, not elected judges.
One student argued that any pay above $150,000/year is “nothing to complain about” and assumed that most judicial appointees would have adequate savings to cushion a drop in pay. We could quibble about the threshold, about whether the “complaint line” is $100,000 or $200,000, without accomplishing much. His $150,000 mark is reasonable–and higher than the salary of most on the bench. You cannot assume that everyone who becomes a judge has built an adequate nest egg. A lawyer who has always been in the public sector before joining the bench will not have had the same opportunities for wealth accumulation as one in private practice. A lawyer in private practice who has always lived up to his or her means (i.e., just about everyone) will not have much left over to save. We all speculate “what’s the amount I need to make every year to be happy,” but that number is elastic. People tend to ratchet up their standard of living as they earn more and their threshold earnings requirement increases accordingly.
This is beside the point anyway because whatever number one picks as adequate for a public sector job will always be less than what one could earn in the private sector. Public-sector employment should not be the path to fantastic wealth. That a fourth-year associate in a large firm can earn $200,000 year with bonuses while a state court judge with 30 years experience earns $115,000 does not mean the judge should get a $100k raise. A $20-30,000 raise, sure. Career decisions involve trade-offs. When I left private practice and business to become a teacher I walked away from larger paychecks. The satisfaction is not only in the remuneration. It would be dandy if we all had top-rank psychic and financial compensation. I’d like the Red Sox to win the 2007 World Series, too. Judicial pay should be fair and rational within the context of public-sector compensation. As long as qualified lawyers want to serve on the bench judicial pay should reflect the social importance of an impartial, dedicated judiciary and be high enough for judges to maintain a standard of living commensurate with their status as professionals, without regard to whether they can earn three times as much in the private sector.