Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Judge Luttig and Judicial Salaries

The news that Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge J. Michael Luttig resigned today to become the Chief Counsel of Boeing comes as a bit of a shock, especially considering that he has been on quite a few short lists for elevation to the Supreme Court. While I rarely agreed with Judge Luttig, I am certainly able to cast aside partisan differences and note that he was considered to be arguably among the brightest and most accomplished Judges on the Federal Bench and his decision to resign leaves a gaping hole on the Fourth Circuit that will be difficult to fill. Yes, Judge Luttig was a conservative, but he was above all an accomplished lawyer and a good judge.

His reasons, both stated and unstated, for resigning, however, raise the issue of judicial salaries. I’ve long been an advocate for a substantial increase in judicial salaries, as well as the salaries of most public servants, both state and federal. (As an aside, being a public servant myself, I recognize that I have a lot to gain by large increases in salary, but objectively speaking, the fact that I could make close to 75-100% more in the private sector for the same or similar work is disturbing. I’m okay with small disparities, as salaries do not have to be equal, but the gap should not be nearly as large as it is.) As the chart below indicates the salaries for federal judges are, in my opinion, pitifully low.

Chief Justice of the United States $212,100

Associate Justices of the Supreme Court $203,000

Judges, U.S. Courts of Appeal $175,100

Judges, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Services $175,100

Judges, U.S. District Courts $165,200

I know that it is difficult for many to read this chart and think that $165,200 is low, but when you consider that most, if not all, of the nominees for the federal bench are accomplished attorneys, at the tops of their firms, with partnerships and client bases that are very profitable, it should become rather clear that almost everyone who accepts the nomination for such a position is taking a substantial pay cut. From my own experience as an attorney in DC, I could have made up to $125,000 as a first year associate right out of law school. Now, 3 years later, starting salaries are as high as $140,000 and people with experience commensurate to mine routinely make in excess of $150,000 at large firms. Of course, it is true that these salaries are not representative of the entire legal market, (rather are only at places attorneys call BIG LAW, or major corporate firms), but nevertheless, it should put things into a bit of perspective. Bottom line, if a person who has been a lawyer for less than 10 years can make more than what a federal district judge makes, we have a problem and a disparity that is, in my opinion, starting to make it difficult to recruit and retain the best and the brightest for service as a judge.

Now, in fairness, there is a counter argument, which I fully acknowledge. Namely, that people ought to engage in public service not for the gobs of money they could make, but rather for the honor and prestige that comes from serving their country, especially in a life-tenured position such as a federal judge. As someone who chose public service over private practice, this is the reason why. It’s not that I don’t want to make $200,000 per year, but rather that I value my service and enjoy being a government worker, besides the money isn’t all that bad. I, however, made my decision at 25 year’s old, single, and with no dependents. Others, say like judicial appointees, are often (Justice Souter is perhaps the most famous exception) married, with children, and existing financial obligations. In other words, for these people the money matters; a lot. And it especially matters when it involves a major life decision.

Is there a recruiting problem currently? I honestly don’t know, but my guess is that there might be but it’s not the kind of thing you would ever hear about. Presidents back their nominees 100% regardless of whether they were the first choice or the 50th. You would never hear a President say, I nominate Judge X for the Fourth Circuit because the pay is so low that he was the only guy who would take the job. Like I said, I don’t know if there is an actual problem, but I’d be willing to bet that several people over the last 10 years or so, have said, thanks, but no thanks, to a federal judgeship.


<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?