From Washington Lawyer, December 2012
A Different Kind of Crisis on the Bench
I write in sharp disagreement with the position of D.C. Bar President Tom Williamson that federal judges’ pay is nearing some kind of crisis (October 2012 issue). To the contrary, federal judges are well paid, and if their pay has decreased relative to the value of the dollar, then they were overpaid in the past. Frankly, the president and others who whine about federal judicial pay are possessed of some audacity.
The president cited senior faculty pay at “leading law schools” at $330,000. Well, I am senior law faculty, but I must not be at a “leading law school.” Whatever that means, I’m sure most law professors aren’t at one. I make $125,000 at the University of Massachusetts, and I made less at the University of Arkansas. But I don’t cry about it. I count myself privileged to be in public service and lucky to have a job while my students and alumni struggle for work of any kind and contemplate crushing debt.
Williamson complained that $174,000 is not enough for a federal judge. Well, I’ll take it. I would relish a chance to serve on the bench; I think I would be good at it, and I would welcome the pay hike. Better still, my wife, an unemployed lawyer, will take it for half that much, which is about double what she made at legal services. And by the way, she’s a woman, a person of color, and a war veteran. So don’t tell me you need to pay big bucks for diversity.
Why don’t we stop pretending that being a federal judge represents some kind of pinnacle of intellectual endowment? Nomination is far more politics and networking than aptitude. There are plenty of skilled lawyers who are not working for the big firms, who would love a turn on the bench, and who won’t even be considered. They practice the wrong kind of law, dare to have opinions, went to the wrong schools, or don’t know and give money to the right people. Open the doors to those able and willing to serve, and the bench will be overrun with talent.
We should be cutting judges’ starting salaries—and faculty salaries at “leading law schools”—and using the money instead to reform access to legal education and legal services. It sickens me to read about paying judges more when ordinary Americans can’t afford basic legal services, yet lawyer unemployment abounds. If there is any kind of crisis in the federal judiciary, it’s apparently that the bench and its groupies have lost touch with economic reality.
—Richard J. Peltz-Steele
University of Massachusetts School of Law
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