CAREER SATISFACTION and State Trial Court Judges' Plans to Leave the Bench

By Jensen, Jennifer M. | Judicature, November/December 2011 | Go to article overview

CAREER SATISFACTION and State Trial Court Judges' Plans to Leave the Bench


Jensen, Jennifer M., Judicature


Retaining skilled members of the judiciary is important for the dispensation of justice and the management of our court system.

A state trial court judgeship is a prestigious position. Judges reach the bench either through election or appointment - denoting respect from politicians or the public, if not both - and once they arrive, the work is intellectually rewarding and substantively significant Yet a position on the bench involves tradeoffs. The vast majority of judges forego far more lucrative career opportunities. The burdens of heavy caseloads can take their toll. There may be little room for advancement. As judges accrue years of experience on the bench, they might be very satisfied in their positions, or they might be dissatisfied. They might find reasons to stay in the position. Or they might find reasons to leave.

There has been little systematic research on judicial career satisfaction. There are more general commentaries on the level of job satisfaction that judges might have, based on judicial anecdotes, than systematic empirical analyses of the level of satisfaction that they do have. Maintaining high levels of Job satisfaction among judges is important to attract good jurists and to retain those currently on the bench, and so an understanding of job satisfaction should benefit those who work in and oversee the courts.

This article uses a survey of justices sitting on the New York State Supreme Court - which is a general jurisdiction trial court - to examine judicial job satisfaction, plans to leave the bench, and the relationship between the two.1 Certainly judicial retention is not the only reason to care about job satisfaction of judges, but retaining skilled members of the judiciary is important for the dispensation of justice and the management of our court system. Furthermore, it serves as a key indicator of broader dissatisfaction on the bench: if low levels of job satisfaction can be linked to an intention to leave the bench earlier than one otherwise would, then that is a bad sign for our courts.

What We Know About Judicial Job Satisfaction and Retention

Most studies of judges' attitudes focus on judges' views on adjudication or the court system.2 Although judgeships are considered good jobs, there is little systematic research on job satisfaction levels of jurists.3 However, the literature does emphasize that most judges are not satisfied with their salaries. Base salaries, cost of living and other raises, and pensions have each been criticized as too low. This is not a new criticism; the paucity of judicial salaries has been criticized since the earliest days of nationhood. Nathaniel Pendleton, a federal district court judge for Georgia, resigned from his judgeship in 1791 for reasons of low salary.4 In more recent years, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist championed pay increases for federal judges, and U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts has argued that inadequate salaries are causing a "constitutional crisis," with low salaries endangering life tenure for federal Jurists, and by extension endangering the independence of the courts.5 Reports detailing the problems stemming from low compensation, or recommending increases in judicial compensation, have been published by organizations such as the American Judicature Society,6 the American Bar Association, and the National Center for State Courts7, as well as by the federal government8 and state governments.9 One attorney has even proposed an occupation tax on lawyers as a funding source for increased salaries for fund federal judges,10 although the judicial community as a whole is aware that the public is unlikely to perceive a need for significant salary increases for judges.11

Much of the literature on a judge's likelihood to leave the bench focuses on whether jurists are politically strategic in timing their retirements. Most focuses on the federal courts, and some does not consider the possible effects of judicial compensation. …

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