Chief Justice John Roberts has, for the second year in a row, urged Congress in his year-end report to raise federal judges’ salaries. Since 1969, federal judicial pay has actually declined by 23.9 percent after inflation; during the same period, the average American workers’ wages have increased by 17.8 percent in real terms. It’s time for Congress to make the federal judiciary more appealing to a wider variety of skilled individuals by raising salaries.
In the United States, a district judge earns approximately $165,000 a year. An appellate judge earns approximately $175,100 a year. And a chief justice earns approximately $212,000 a year. This may seem like a lot, but it’s less than what many large law firms in major cities are paying their newly recruited law school graduates. And it’s also significantly less than other law professionals such as senior law school professors and law school deans are earning.
What’s more, these federal judges are earning substantially less than many federal employees in the executive branch and banking agencies. A chief learning officer at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, for example, earns almost $260,000 a year, and a deputy general counsel at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission earns almost $210,000 a year.
These stagnant salaries are driving qualified judges away from the profession at alarming rates. Since 1990, more than 100 Article III judges have left the bench—the vast majority of them have taken jobs elsewhere. And five years ago, in January 2003, the National Commission on the Public Service, also known as the Volcker Commission, said that “judicial salaries are the most egregious example of the failure of federal compensation policies … the potential for the diminished quality in American jurisprudence is now too large.” The Commission went on to say that Congress’ first priority “should be an immediate and substantial increase in judicial salaries.”
It is also clear that low salaries have held back the diversity of the federal judiciary. As of April 2007, there were 875 authorized appointments; only six of these judges are Asian American, 57 are Latino, 91 are African American, and none Native American. Judicial compensation is a significant barrier to the recruitment of African-American, Asian-American, Latino, and Native-American candidates.
Congress needs to heed Chief Justice Roberts’ call. There is a bill that has passed though the House Judiciary Committee that would raise judges’ pay to $233,500 annually, but it needs to be considered by the full congressional body and get to the president’s desk. The judicial branch should be as strong as possible, and reflect the values and diversity that have shaped our country. The biggest barrier to that right now—the inadequate yearly salary for judges—can and should be addressed in this new year.