A federal judge is an officer of the United States who must be appointed by the president and approved by the Senate. Once approved, a federal judge serves for life. There are three tiers of federal judges: district court, circuits courts of appeal, and the U.S. Supreme Court. Additionally, magistrate judges and bankruptcy judge work for limited terms or with limited jurisdiction in the federal court system.
According to figures provided by the US Courts, pay for federal judges depends on the level at which the judge is employed. District court judges, the trial level in the federal system, earned $174,000 in 2010, the same as a member of the U.S. House or Senate. Circuit judges made $184,500. Associate justices of the Supreme Court earned $213,900, while John Roberts, the Chief Justice, took home $223,500. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the average federal magistrate and bankruptcy judge salary as $155,756.
The salaries of federal judges has risen at a slower rate than many other federal employees. According to US Courts, the average federal salary has increased by 91 percent since 1992. Judge salaries have only risen by 39 percent, just above the official rate of inflation of 36 percent. Federal judges have also been denied cost of living adjustments, or COLAs, several times, losing a total of $283,100 of statutorily authorized pay at the district court level and even more at the circuit court level. Federal district judge pay has been linked with the salary for a member of the House of Representatives since the late 80s.
Another way to quantify the trend in federal judge salaries is by comparing the relative earnings of federal judges, the Harvard Law School dean, and senior professors in 1969 and today. In 1969, federal judges were at the top of the heap, earning $40,000 while the Harvard dean made $33,000 and senior professors took home just $28,000. Today, that hierarchy has turned inside out, with law school deans earning $430,000 on average and senior professors making over $300,000. Even many first year lawyers in prestigious firms today earn more than most federal judges.
Crisis on the Bench
Since 1990, 123 judges have left the federal bench through retirement or resignation. It is believed that many of these resignations have occurred as federal judges pursue more lucrative employment. According to Chief Justice John Roberts, the low pay of federal judges threatens the independence of the federal judiciary, which is why federal judges are supposed to be appointed for life. If lawyers see a federal judgeship as merely a stepping stone to a higher paying career elsewhere, the entire federal court system envisioned by the Constitution could be in jeopardy.
Joseph Nicholson is an independent analyst whose publishing achievements include a cover feature for "Futures Magazine" and a recurring column in the monthly newsletter of a private mint. He received a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Florida and is currently attending law school in San Francisco.