A Simple Fix for Judges’ Salaries: Better Regional Cost-of-Living Adjustment
posted by Scott Moss
[ I started writing this as a comment to Frank's post, but it got too long. ]
I’m tempted to reiterate my whole blog post mocking Judge Luttig’s salary complaint, but I’ll limit myself to an excerpt:
Can someone point me to the folk song about the guy who couldn’t afford college for his two young’uns because he earned only $3.4 million over 20 years as a high-level judge? … I do not have Luttig’s expenses, and I’m a fairly frugal guy, so let me use the soapbox of Prawfsblawg to make President Bush this offer: I’ll do the job for just $170,800, which means a $1,000 savings for the American people!
My serious point was to express doubt about the empirical assertion Justice Kennedy is now making: “I’m losing my best judges” because of low salaries. I just don’t buy it; even if there are scattered examples, I doubt that the White House can’t find a few dozen amazingly qualified nominees a year fromamong the million lawyers in the country.
Part of my skepticism is this: I may not believe judges’ self-reported reasons for leaving the judiciary. Yes, Luttig’s departure is a loss if we want the best and brightest on the bench. But consider his timing: he quit shortly after the second time President Bush passed him up for the Court in favor of two other white male appellate judges. By then, Luttig had to realize Bush wasn’t going to appoint him: (1) any third Bush nominee very likely would be a women or minority; and (2) Bush probably passed him over for a real reason: most likely, that Luttig is a “small-gov’t” conservative who once wrote an opinion that would have curtailed executive power whereas Alito and Roberts had a record of favoring broad executive and prosecutorial power — Bush’s primary goal with nominees, as evidenced by the nomination of Harriet Miers (who had no abortion record but a strong record of helping the White House seek broad presidential power).
This timing was reminiscent of Robert Bork’s departure from the bench a year after his Court nomination failed. Maybe this “I didn’t make it to the Supremes” story isn’t inconsistent with the “low salary” story — e.g., “if I’m not making it to the Court, I’ll cash out.” Even if so, does anyone think a raise from $171K to, say, $205K (a 20% jump, probably more than Kennedy hopes for) would’ve kept Luttig from going to Boeing once he gave up hopes of becoming a Justice?
There are two arguments for higher judicial salaries I might buy, the first being Frank’s point that we might get a more diverse judiciary with higher salaries, because we could attract those who became lawyers without family wealth and hold lower-paying jobs (legal aid, prosecution, etc.). But this is an empirical question — are many middle-class and/or minority lawyers in fact not pursuing judgeships for salary reasons? I’m dubious.
Second, maybe we need higher cost-of-living adjustments in particular cities with especially inflated salaries and housing costs. Justice Kennedy’s tale of former clerks making more than their judges may happen in NY and DC, but not in most places. E.g., according to the NALP directory, entry-level salaries in many states are about half of NY’s: e.g., Maine (Portland: $71-73K); Nebraska (Omaha: $77-80K); New Mexico (Albuquerque: $70-73K). (These are the first states I looked at, specifically avoiding states with <1 million like Idaho or Vermont.) Even in top-30-population cities like Denver and Milwaukee, former clerks who join big firms don’t out-earn their judges.
In short, Justice Kennedy’s factual premise about lawyer salaries doesn’t support the nationwide salary increase he seeks, just some tinkering with cost-of-living salary adjustments for a few big cities. I don’t know if that’s worth pounding the table before a Senate Committee.