Monday, June 30, 2008

Judicial "Sacrifice"


Reading through some letters to the editor in the New York Times, I came across this gem:
To the Editor:

After a career in public service, I regretfully say, I would not do it again.

Philosophy and point of view led me to doing good instead of doing well, so I never expected to become rich. But now that I’m in my 10th year of a frozen judicial salary - less than summer students are being paid at law firms - I have concluded that whatever I may have accomplished for the public, I have wasted 25 years of my life by serving on the bench.

Emily Jane Goodman
New York, June 23, 2008

The writer is a New York Supreme Court justice.
A recent article provides more information on the salary situation for justices.
Weighing in on a longstanding tug of war between New York’s jurists and lawmakers, a State Supreme Court justice1 ordered the Legislature on Wednesday to give the state’s 1,250 judges their first pay raise in 10 years.

The ruling, by Justice Edward H. Lehner, came in response to a lawsuit filed last September by Patricia M. Nuñez of New York City Criminal Court, Michael L. Nenno of Cattaraugus County Family Court, Susan R. Larabee of New York City Family Court and Geoffrey D. Wright of New York City Civil Court. Justice Lehner gave the Legislature 90 days to increase the current salary of $136,700 for all New York State trial judges.

* * *

Mr. Smith, the lawyer for the four judges, said he believed that state judges should earn a salary comparable to that of Federal District Court judges, who currently earn $169,300 annually.
Now I don't want to get into a debate over judicial salaries beyond agreeing that New York's sound like they're on the low side, and ten years without a raise is a long time. But even at $136,700, I find it hard to sympathize with a judge who is upset that she has "wasted 25 years of [her] life" by serving as a judge because she wasn't paid more. If her qualifications approach those of the "summer students" she complains about, she should have been easily able to join a private firm at a vastly larger salary.

So why didn't she get another job? Step down from the bench, join a law firm, and double or triple both her workload and her income? Really - could it be that there's a benefit to a judicial work schedule, vacation time, retirement plan, medical benefits, support staff, job stability and prestige that provides a benefit above and beyond private practice?

When I think of public service legal jobs, judicial positions aren't the first that come to mind. Or even government jobs in general. I first tend to think of legal aid-type jobs that pay a fraction of a judicial salary, can carry oppressive caseloads, and come with virtually no prestige. I don't wish to diminish the important role of the judge in our legal system, and it's important that quality lawyers be drawn to judicial positions. But even when underpaid, judges tend to earn more than the median salary for practitioners, tend to have much more favorable working conditions and job benefits, and can leverage their judicial experience to get back into private practice if they wish to do so. Even a stellar legal aid lawyer is rarely an attractive prospect to most big firms; a judge wishing to return to practice can be a hot commodity.
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1. In New York, the Supreme Court is a trial court with civil and criminal jurisdiction. New York's highest court is the Court of Appeals.

1 comment:

  1. I was already composing my response in my mind before I read your response. Basically--what you said :)

    I think I've said before that I make more in teaching than I did in legal aid law. And I have rockin' benefits, pension plan, summers off (my district is $400 million in the hole, but who's counting?). Similarly, judges have rockin' benefits, pension plans and much more time off than a big firm lawyer that works 100 or whatever hours per week.

    This reminds me of when I read an article about former Senator Santorum (insert Santorum joke here) where he fussed about barely being able to make it on a senator's salary. I really try not to have violent thoughts, but I wanted to, uh, knock the santorum out of him when I read that :) :)

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