Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Monday, January 01, 2007

Poor, Poor Judges

Justice Roberts decided to distinguish himself today by announcing that his big goal for 2007 wasn't about strengthing privacy rights, taking up abortion cases, or dampening presidential power. Noooooo. His goal for 2007 was get federal judges a "substantial" pay raise because $165,000 a year just isn't enough.

He beseeched his readers to bear with him as he made what is sure to be an unpopular case, especially in a time of war when we are all supposed to be "sacrificing". What is really bugging him is that the dean of his alma madder is now earning much more than he is.

He claims that since 1969, the average worker's wage has increased 18% while judges have seen a decline of 24% when adjusted for inflation. "Judges should not have to accept salaries that 'fall further and further behind the cost of living . . . The time is ripe for our nation's judges to receive a substantial salary increase,'" Roberts is quoted as saying. Well golly gee, show me an average working citizen whose wages are keeping up with the cost of living and I will write my senator on Justice Robert's behalf.

Now, there is part of me willing to believe that you don't attract the best and the brightest if they can go work for a New York Law Firm for three times the salary of a Federal Judge. But, since I don't think much of life time appointments, I have no problem having the less committed serve a few years and then leave to go earn the big bucks. Maybe the best and the brightest aren't what we need so much as the smart, committed and diligent? Public service is just that, PUBLIC SERVICE. And $165K with full benefits and a pension plan ain't bad. Just go ask the folks in New Orleans if that is a deal to turn one's nose up at.

And perhaps the good Justice might be a bit more precise when he says, "substantial raise". It's so, I don't know . . . open to interpretation. I mean, if the Justice is having a hard time paying down his American Express Gold Card, I am sure there is a firm in Boston or LA that would be glad to have him.

LTG, what is your take on this latest from the good Chief? Am I being unfair?


Anonymous said...

I could not disagree more with you, USWest. Justice Roberts is, by the way, simply continuing the call that Rehnquist has made every year for about two decades. I think the comparatively low salaries of federal judges are one of the biggest problems with the modern federal judiciary.

Roberts is right that going on the federal bench now represents a substantial pay cut. So who wants the job? Yes, the diligent and civic minded, but also those who are very political. People with agendas. People who want power. It is no longer the apex of a storied career, as it was 50 years ago, to be a federal judge. Some of the best now even leave the bench because the prospect of salaries that are 2x and 3x larger are hard to resist. Michael Luttig, an ultra-right-winger of the 4th circuit is an example. He was desperate to get to the Supreme Court to continue his right wing agenda. He quit last year when he was passed over. This is a new phenomenon all the way around.

Low pay also has implications for bribery and conflicts of interest. A traditional reason for paying judges well is to reduce temptation. Judges are now finding themselves receiving "awards" from groups that take them on junkets, as they can no longer afford to socialize with the people they used to work with. In most federal hearings, the judge is paid the least of any person in the room with a law degree. It is degrading and frustrating to them. The temptation to use power to soothe the declining socioeconomic status is not good. Federal judges also work very long hours.

I know $165,000 sounds high to many people, but it's not in this industry. Reducing federal judges over time to the status of ordinary federal bureaucrats will produce accordingly bad results. 

// posted by LTG

Anonymous said...

Perhaps the problem is not the comparatively low salaries of the federal judges, but the outrageously high salaries available to private lawyers?

No offense intended to you, LTG, but I cannot help wondering if the high price skilled private attorneys command--while definitely worth it under the current system--is due to some fundamental flaw in that system. If the judiciary were larger, better funded, and far more accessible to the average joe... might the need for attorneys decline?

Anonymous said...

When companies bring $100 million+ lawsuits, the cost of lawyers is all but irrelevant. They want to ensure themselves that they are hiring "the best" so they bid up the price of those who are perceived to be so. Of course, those who charge more are considered better, so it is a vicious circle. And a bit silly. Still, if a corporate executive is charged with hiring a lawyer who loses a $50million case, the best CYA move is to have hired the most expensive attorneys money can buy. So they do that.

I agree that the judiciary is broken in the sense that your average citizen has almost zero access. But that is not due to the high cost of lawyers so much as the long delays caused by underfunding of the judiciary that run up the costs, plus the inability to recover attorney's fees for the winner.

Overall, the "flaw" that Dr.S refers to is just the overall litigiousness of our society. There are no ethics in business in the USA, so the boundaries of conduct are policed by lawsuits and the threat of litigation. It is terribly inefficient, but nobody seems to want to empower federal or state inspectors to police contracts, real estate deals, or even most laws (antitrust, product safety, etc). When so much money is at stake, the lawyers naturally profit from being middlemen. We would be foolish not to.

// posted by LTG

The Law Talking Guy said...

I should add that there is no reliable market information on what a "good" lawyer is other than their general reputation and price.

Anonymous said...

Sounds then like we should be tackling the bigger problem than just salaries. Better to go to the root of it than just feeding the beast. I say bring back the regulators. I've said that for a long time. 

// posted by USWest

Anonymous said...

I do think salary raises are crucial, however. I would pass them all the way down the judiciary as well, by the way. The staff is also underpaid relative to the necessary skill.  

// posted by LTG

Anonymous said...

Salaries aren't driven by what we think is fair or reasonable. They are driven by the demand for a certain set of skills relative to the supply. Judges have very rare skill sets and we need them badly. We should be paying them accordingly.

If judges are starting to go through the revolving door like legislators then that may be an indication that we are not paying them enough. 

// posted by RBR

Raised By Republicans said...

Oh, we should pay teachers more too - just not quite as much. For the same reasons.

Anonymous said...

The jobs that are often the most important to society don't get paid enough, like social workers, teachers, child care professionals, home health care workers,etc. These people become even more important as one of the most selfish generations we've ever produced (boomers) age.

My concern in paying judges is about who much is adequate and where you draw the line. We have a society taht is very much in the grip of greed. 

// posted by USWest