In his first year-end report Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. repeats the dubious claim his predecessor William H. Rehnquist made for years: the Republic will fall unless Congress immediately increases the salaries of federal judges.
Roberts says that the low current pay is a “direct threat to judicial independence” because it means judges can serve only “for a term dictated by their financial position rather than for life.” Judges will be forced to take more lucrative private jobs to support themselves in old age. Unless salaries increase substantially, Roberts claims, the federal bench will become less diverse because only the “independently wealthy” will be able to serve.
Federal district court judges make $165,200 a year. Circuit court judges make $175,100. Associate justices rake in $203,000. And the Chief Justice himself is paid $212,100.
Is it really so difficult to make ends meet on these princely sums?
Sure, lawyers in private practice can earn much more. Partners at top-flight firms make several million dollars annually. But federal judges have way more interesting jobs with all kinds of wonderful perks, including a permanent place in history.
If the “low” salary means some people don’t apply to be judges, then so be it. After all, does a lawyer who is in it for the money really have the right temperament to be a judge? Does the average American have a decent chance of receiving justice before somebody who considers a six-figure income a vow of poverty?
Chief Justice Roberts points in his report to the recent increase in the number of federal judges leaving the bench for private practice. That’s too bad. But would the judge who is scraping by on $165,000 (or more) really stick around for the 30% increase Roberts is asking Congress for?
For the record, when jurors serve in federal court they earn $40 per day plus bus fare.
By that standard, judges are paid very nicely, thank you.