How to Enhance Federal Judicial Compensation

By Paul, Roland | Judicature, September/October 2008 | Go to article overview

How to Enhance Federal Judicial Compensation


Paul, Roland, Judicature


A nationwide occupational tax on attorneys could be used to increase the pathetically low current compensation of federal judges

Junior attorneys in many law firms today make more money than justices of the United States Supreme Court. The salary of a Supreme Court justice in 2007 was $203,000, and for the chief justice $212,100. Many second year attorneys now make more than that. And, as stated by Chief Justice John Roberts in his 2006 yearend Report on the Federal Judiciary, many first year attorneys make more money than the trial court judges they some day hope to appear before. This discrepancy in compensation, of course, is nothing short of a national disgrace, and a black mark against our profession, which strives to embody the highest moral standards. Most citizens, and probably most attorneys, would acknowledge that something is way out of kilter.

This compensation differential not only diminishes the dignity of the judiciary, but it also discourages the best and the brightest of our profession from seeking to serve on the bench. No matter how highly lawyers and perhaps others esteem the private practice of law, its social value is clearly below that provided by the judiciary.

There is, however, a fairly simple, and effectively painless, solution to this outrageous situation. For federal judges, it would be a nationwide occupational tax on attorneys, the revenue from which would be earmarked to bring federal judges' compensation up either to roughly what their peers earn in practicing law or at least up by a generous heft to remove the bane of such pathetically low compensation (perhaps up to 7080 percent of what high-priced lawyers earn).

There is ample precedent for such a tax. Already several states, including Connecticut and Texas, impose occupational taxes on attorneys practicing in those states. And most states in effect impose such a tax through registration fees on attorneys. Moreover, at the federal level there is already an occupational tax within the Internal Revenue Code - in section 5801 - on importers, manufacturers, and dealers of firearms.

The tax rate to generate the appropriate level of revenue to add to the federal judges' existing salary rates could be set by an appropriate congressionally delegated authority, and the revenue so raised could be allocated by the chief justice in his capacity as administrator of the federal judiciary.

Since there are so many lawyers and so few judges, the amount of tax on each attorney would be miniscule. And if the law firms choose to pass the added cost on to their clients, well, so be it. There are approximately one million lawyers in this country. The number of currently authorized federal district and appellate judges is about 900. Even if the tax were applied pro rata, instead of progressively as it should be, the tax per lawyer to increase each federal judge's compensation by $300,000 would only be $270!

Considerations

Several secondary issues should be considered:

1) Should the tax be imposed only on income directly related to the providing of legal services or on all income of those who are licensed to practice law? …

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