No Pay Raise for You This Year? Don’t Complain

The recent American Bar Association Annual Meeting in Chicago included a panel discussion of a new study revealing that money is the leading consideration when federal judges make the decision to leave the bench. The study by University of Pennsylvania Law School Professor Stephen Burbank and Judge S. Jay Plager of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit concludes with a recommendation that Congress confer the cost-of-living adjustments that have been missing from federal judges’ paychecks for years.

Judge Patrick Higginbotham of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals told the panel that although he decided to assume senior status rather than retirement, he recognizes there are significant financial rewards he could be reaping in private practice. “This job is costing my family a lot of money. It always has,” the judge told the panel, according to the ABA Journal.

Federal judges are paid $174,000 per year, slightly more than what some junior associates earn at large law firms in major U.S. cities. Congress has not increased federal judicial pay since 1991, which Higginbotham labeled as “obscene.”  Think about it: a federal judge with a newborn that year would be paying college tuition today without a single increase in pay in the intervening years. 

While judges who take senior status like Higginbotham are permitted to take on a smaller workload than their colleagues, many of them work very hard and handle a significant amount of the judicial branch’s duties. Indeed, one of Judge Higginbotham’s highly-respected colleagues on the 5th Circuit – Senior Judge and Former Texas Supreme Court Justice Will Garwood – was working on cases from his hospital bed shortly before his death in 2011.  The study’s authors estimate that if senior judges no longer handled that workload, the U.S. federal courts would need a whopping 147 new district judges and 23 appellate judges.

The topic of judicial pay can be politically sensitive and somewhat controversial even in the legal profession, where some argue that there are plenty of other capable lawyers willing to take a prestigious job that pays six figures and offers lifetime tenure.  But no one wins when a highly respected, talented judge leaves the bench to do something else. Having a revolving door of new, inexperienced judges who depart after a few years merely because they have kids in college isn’t going to do much to maintain a strong judicial branch, either. 

In any event, perhaps we can all agree that if the efforts of federal judges were worth $174,000 in 1991, they’re certainly worth a lot more in 2012. 


 

Posted: 9/17/2012 12:00:00 AM by TCLE Editor | with 0 comments

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Thanks for stopping by On the Merits, the first blog from the Texas Center for Legal Ethics. On the Merits will take a close look at significant legal stories with an eye toward addressing the legal myths and misconceptions that turn up in news stories, movies, TV programs, websites, anonymous emails and other forms of mass communications. Our goal at On the Merits is to provide readers with a thoughtful examination of what the media and others are saying about the legal profession and to apply the frequently-absent context of how the legal system actually works.

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