Several years ago, I was approached about the prospect of becoming a federal judge. I confess, it appealed to me, at least for a couple of months. But then I realized that one consequence of appointment to this lifetime position would be the requirement that I behave like a judge. That’s more of a sacrifice than I want to make, even for the sake of job security. Hell-raising is fun.
We demand a lot of judges. We expect them not just to be fair and impartial, but even to avoid the mere appearance of impropriety. I’ve had friends become judges. At once, they are isolated, wary of talking about anything that might call into question their probity. Don the robe, and learn to live in the the shadows. No, thanks.
Why do people become judges?
I suspect that most do so because of some noble aspiration. They want to do justice, or make a difference in the world. Perhaps that explains why so few judges, at least so few federal judges, have significant experience as trial lawyers. Go to court often enough and you quickly learn that Clarence Darrow had it right: “There is no such thing as justice in or out of court.”
Judges are like the fellows who control the gates at a rodeo cattle-chute, or, to chose a metaphor more consonant with historic New England, they are like the lonely sentinels at a lighthouse, keeping track of all that can collide in the dark of night. It’s wild world; judges try to bring order to chaos.
Is job security the appeal of a judgeship? I confess that a lifetime appointment sounds good. Imagine being told you could work for the rest of your life, secure in the knowledge that, unless there is either a global apocalypse or root and branch social revolution, you will hold your job, in sickness and health, until the day the mortician declares you unfit to serve?
Although state judges don’t sit for life, and, frankly, I think it is a shame that they do not, there’s still more security in he state system than most of us know: Upon confirmation to serve, a state-court judge serves an eight-year term. Thereafter, they must be are subject to a retention hearing by the General Assembly every eight years. They vest in the state’s generous pension system after ten years of state service.
Is it the money that attracts folks to the bench?
I hope not. There ought to be a rule against appointing a person to a judge if they will make more money as a jurist than they did as a lawyer: Hustle first, meditate later.
Although judicial salaries are far in excess of the median family income in the United States, they lag behind what even a nominally competent lawyer can make after a decade or two of perfecting their craft. In Connecticut, a state judge currently earns about about $147,000 per year; a state Supreme Court justice earns a shade more than $175,000 annually. Federal judges do a little better: A District Court judge earns $174,000; a spot on the Supreme Court fetches about $214,000.
The pay of neither state nor federal judges has risen in recent years. The result is low morale and departure from the bench of jurists who simply tire of being taken for granted. In hard economic times, judges don’t want to be be perceived as violating the hog rule. It’s hard to ask for a raise when you are making multiples of the median family income in the United States, a sum of $49,103, according to U.S. Census Bureau.
Connecticut Supreme Court Chief Justice Chase Rogers recently formally requested an increase in judicial salaries. She wants the salary of all judges to jump to $163,416 come July, 2013. The salaries would peak at $191,890 in 2017. Her campaign for increased salaries comes on the heels of a significant ruling in the District of Columbia Circuit Court, one of the nation’s most powerful appellate courts, ruling that federal judicial salaries are too low.
I’m no fan of government, but, by any standard, the judicial branches of both state and federal governments are a bargain. The entire budget for the Judicial Branch is estimated to be 2.7 percent of the state’s budget in 2013, according to the Office of Fiscal Analysis. On the federal level, the judiciary accounts for less than one percent of the federal budget.
So count me a supporter of raises for judges. I think you should support the raises, too. The next time you need a dispute resolved by means other than violence, you’ll want a well-staffed and competent court to hear your case. Let’s get the justice we deserve. I don’t want discount justice.
Hell, raise the salary high enough, and I just might throw my hat into the ring.
“All rise,” you say? I might just get used to that -- when Hell freezes over.
Reprinted courtesy of the Journal Register Company.