Bench Memos

NRO’s home for judicial news and analysis.

Re: The Chief Soft-Pedals It


A friendly reader suggests that maybe Linda Greenhouse had it right in the NYT, and that Robert Barnes of the Washington Post (and I) had it wrong, about the proposed new judicial salaries that would result from legislation that has made its way through the House Judiciary Committee.  As I just replied to him, I was going by the text of the bill on the Library of Congress’s “Thomas” site to which I found my way via the link to H.R. 3753 on House Judiciary’s site here:  There the figure was $233,500 for district judges, with higher salaries as one ascends in the judiciary.  If a compromise lowered the figure to $218,000 as Greenhouse reported, perhaps the link at House Judiciary’s website is to an older original text–but Thomas indicates the status of the bill, with the figures I gave, is that it passed House Judiciary 28-5 on December 12.  I can’t find a version with the lower figure at Thomas, but the text there appears to be unchanged since it was introduced October 4, and may not reflect a December change.  By the way, the Senate bill, S. 1638, introduced last June and still pending in Senate Judiciary, starts at $247,800 for district court judges, and rises to $318,200 for the chief justice.

Some correspondents are particularly exercised, as is Chief Justice Roberts himself (so too Jonathan Adler, below), that federal district judges’ salaries are exceeded by wet-behind-the-ears associates at the great urban law firms.  One suggests that judicial salaries could be legislated to automatically stay ahead of such a rate–although calculation formulae for such a metric could be controversial (whose salaries are in the equation? which law firms?).

I don’t think that competitiveness with other professional sectors in the law can ever be the proper objective of judicial salary legislation.  The public treasury cannot be expected to keep pace with private market forces.  And I don’t think the linkage to congressional and executive-branch pay scales has been a bad thing.  It’s hard to say with a straight face that the work of a district judge is “worth more” than that of a House member.  The downside is that judicial pay then gets held hostage to the fits of self-denial in which members of Congress occasionally feel obliged, by politics, to indulge.  But I wouldn’t object to, say, $250,000 salaries for the lowest ranking federal judges if that were also a rank-and-file House member’s salary.

Chief Justice Roberts has put his finger on the right criterion for alarms about judicial pay when he raises the specter of a judiciary that cannot see its vacancies filled by able men and women who will consider staying on the bench for a good long haul.  He just doesn’t have a good case that this is presently a looming problem.


Sign up for free NRO e-mails today:

Subscribe to National Review