Recently, Chief Justice John Roberts devoted his entire annual report on the federal judiciary to complaining about how little federal judges are paid. (Trial court judges are paid $165,000 per year, while appellate court judges and Supreme Court justices subsist on annual salaries of $175,000 and $203,000, respectively).
Roberts is playing the role of an administrator trying to wheedle a pay raise out of Congress for his department, so a certain amount of hyperbole in his rhetoric is to be expected. Still, Roberts’ description of the situation as “a constitutional crisis that threatens to undermine the federal judiciary” is a bit much.
Roberts focuses on the fact that judicial salaries haven’t kept pace with the salaries of what he calls “senior law professors at top schools.” And this is true — while the salaries of such persons have nearly doubled in real terms over the past 40 years, judicial salaries have declined slightly.
Roberts also points out that federal judges now make about as much as new law school graduates hired by top firms, and only a small fraction of what the senior partners in those firms take home.
He speculates that this situation will “inevitably result in a decline in the quality” of federal judges, since the pool is becoming restricted to “persons so wealthy that they can afford to be indifferent” to their salaries, or people who would be getting a raise by becoming a judge.
This ignores that federal judges have cushy jobs featuring all sorts of fabulous benefits. They have bright young law clerks to do most of their work for them (including, in a startlingly high proportion of cases, the writing of the opinions the judges sign). As a practical matter federal judges can’t be fired. They can retire at age 65 and continue to draw their full salary for the rest of their lives. And they have a lot of real power (I’ve known lawyers who wouldn’t return a phone call from the Pope but would sprint out of a bathroom to take a call from a judge’s clerk).
By contrast, lawyers at top law firms have extremely annoying jobs that require working absurdly long hours, as well as dealing with highly aggravating people — a group that includes, but is not limited to, clients, other lawyers, and federal judges.
As for “senior law professors at top schools,” you could cut the compensation packages of such persons by 50 percent, and, after the initial shock had worked its way through the system, I would venture to guess there would be no detectable loss of quality in the work force.
The notion that it’s necessary to pay a Yale law professor twice as much as a Yale political scientist in order to keep up the quality of that law school’s faculty is almost surely false, but that’s a topic for another day.
All this raises the larger issue of what a “fair” or “efficient” salary really is. Recently, some articles in the financial press have claimed that the annual compensation packages of CEOs at large public companies, which currently average around $10 million, are too low, given that some hedge fund managers are being paid hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
It’s pointed out, for example, that these veritable mendicants are often reduced to traveling in private jets leased by their companies, rather than enjoying the enhanced freedom of the hedge fund manager who owns his jet outright.
A couple of statistics for Chief Justice Roberts: the median household (not individual) income in America is $45,000. Four-fifths of American families live on less than $90,000 per year. Ninety-five percent live on less than $166,000 per year.
And nobody is writing their opinions for them, or groveling in their presence like they were the Pope in Rome.
(Paul F. Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado and can be reached at Paul.Campos(at)Colorado.edu.)