Judicial Pay and the Independence of the Judiciary
Sonnett, Neal R., Judicature
The Chief Justice devoted his 2006 Year End Report on the Federal Judiciary to a single subject-"the failure to raise judicial pay"-and argued that the issue "has now reached the level of a constitutional crisis that threatens to undermine the strength and independence of the federal judiciary."
Some chided his characterization as hyperbole, but Chief Justice John Roberts, and then Justice Anthony Kennedy in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, have drawn renewed and important attention to an issue that presents a clear and present danger to the quality and the independence of our nation's judiciary.
The issue is certainly not new. The National Commission on the Public Service, headed by Paul Volcker, reported several years ago that the "lag in judicial salaries has gone on too long, and the potential for the diminished quality in American jurisprudence is now too large."
But now, large law firms in major cities are paying new law school graduates more than federal judges, and many senior law professors and deans at major law schools earn more than twice as much as federal judges. From 1969 through 2006, real pay for federal judges has declined approximately 25 percent. More dedicated and experienced judges are leaving the bench for financial reasons, and fewer seasoned lawyers from the private bar are seeking judgeships. Thus, as the New York Times editorialized on January 5, "Mr. Roberts is right to note the link between maintaining an adequate standard of judicial compensation and preserving the quality and independence of the judiciary, and to prod Congress on this issue."
In February, AJS Board member Alex Reinert and I attended a meeting that organized a broadbased coalition of major legal organizations, corporations, public interest groups, law firms, and academics to support increased compensation for federal judges. …