Federal Judges’ Annual Salary: Constitutional Crisis

In his second annual report, Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts advocated an increase in federal judges’ annual salary, as reported by the New York Times. Roberts warned that federal judges’ annual salary “has now reached the level of a constitutional crisis that threatens to undermine the strength and independence of the federal judiciary.” Pretty strong words, but does he have a case? Is the federal judges’ annual salary actually smaller than a Baltimore SUV accident lawyer, Ohio crime defense lawyer, or even AZ administrative law judges?

Justice Roberts says that since 1969 the national average wage rate has risen by 17.8 percent, while the average salary for federal judges has dropped by 23.9 percent. Roberts claimed that because of this “dramatic erosion of judicial compensation” it was “clear that the time is ripe for our nation’s judges to receive a substantial salary increase.” According to Roberts, the failure to increase the federal judges’ annual salary lies at the feet of Congress.

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Lawyer Salary Per Hour or Federal Judges’ Annual Salary, which would you choose?

Chief Justice Roberts says that over the past six years 38 federal judges have quit, with 17 departing since 2005. Using judge-speak, Roberts claims that the federal judges’ annual salary is the problem: “Inadequate compensation directly threatens the viability of life tenure.” According to Roberts, less than 40 percent of lawyers in private practice – the best lawyers – accept federal judgeships because the annual salary is low. But how low is it really?

By U.S. law, federal judges earn the same annual salary as members of Congress: $165,200 a year. Federal appeals court judges earn an annual salary of $175,100. The Supreme Court judge salary for associate justices is $203,000, and Chief Justice Roberts?

Salary of U.S. Supreme Court Judge John G. Roberts

According to blog.lawinfo.com, the annual salary of U.S. Supreme Court Judge Roberts is $212,100. As you might imagine, the problem lies in the link of annual salary between judges and Congress; the latter catching heat from voters whenever they vote themselves a raise. What most of the electorate may not know is that they are voting judges a raise too.

Another income killer for judges is the 1989 Ethics Reform Act, which forbids outside income (most types) for federal judges. The 1989 Ethics reform Act was supposed to guarantee regular increases for cost-of-living expenses. However, over the past 13 years there have been no increases in 5 of those years. When Congress ended the 2006 session without giving judges a cost-of-living increase, Roberts was steamed, “Congressional inaction in the face of this situation is grievously unfair.”

District of Columbia Lawyer Salary

To add insult to injury, law clerks for federal judges can actually earn more than their bosses earn when they leave and go into private practice. If you include bonuses and annual salary, a first-year associate in New York City could earn up $175,000 in total compensation, topping a federal judge annual salary of $165,200. Law clerks who have worked for the Supreme Court may even receive an additional $200,000 signing bonus!

That means a lawyer, who is a first-year associate, could earn a total compensation of $375,000, more than annual salary of U.S. Supreme Court Judge Roberts: $212,000. By the way, that number is a real cut in pay for Roberts who reportedly earned a District of Columbia lawyer salary of $1,044,399 in 2005 while in private practice at the law firm of Hogan & Hartson.

While he was a practicing lawyer, Roberts also worked as an adjunct faculty member at the Georgetown University Law Center, which brings us to yet another group out-earning judges… law professors and deans. In 2002, while judges were reportedly earning an annual salary of $150,000, some law school deans’ annual salary reached $325,000, and law professors’ annual salary topped at $225,000.

Federal Judges’ Annual Salary vs. Average Lawyer Job Salaries

This begs the question, what lawyers earn more than federal judges? Well, the list is pretty long. Looking at the PayScale Salary data, some of which is visible in the Payscale Research Center, we see even average experienced lawyers around the country earn an equal or larger annual salary and/or total pay than federal judges:

Attorney/Lawyer, Washington, District of Columbia
10-19 years of experience
Average Salary: $154, 824
Top 10% Salary: $239,758

Attorney/Lawyer, Florida
10-19 years of experience
Average Salary: $110,887
Top 10% Salary: $167,328

Attorney/Lawyer, Maryland
10-19 years of experience
Average Salary: $155,724
Top 10% Salary: $179,854

These salary averages do not include bonuses, profit sharing, etc., which can easily increase annual income by 20% or more.

The question is, how good should federal judges be? How much money does it take to buy quality? Clearly, judges should be experienced lawyers, but should they be paid like the top lawyers in Washington, D.C., e.g., Harvard Law grads like Judge Roberts? Or should they be paid like average experienced lawyers in Florida?

Federal Judge Alfred Egidio Modarelli

I happen to have a little bit of skin in the game; my grandfather was a federal judge. His history is interesting: he could only afford to become a federal judge after 26 years bringing home the bacon in private practice. He didn’t become a judge for the money; he did it for the impact. Deciding on anti-trust cases involving ATT was a lot more fun than writing contracts.

My grandfather stashed away enough money from private practice for his family to live well for 10 years, and send three kids to college, while he was a judge. My grandmother lived well for another 35 years after he died on just income from their savings. Given that my grandfather’s first 10 earning years were during the Great Depression, that is pretty impressive.

About 95% of American families live on less than $165,200/year. How much of a hardship is it to be a federal judge? After working at jobs, like Roberts, where income can have been in the millions, perhaps the judges should have saved a little? Can’t we find lawyers like my grandfather who are interested in public service, even if it means a pay cut?

Do you earn more than a federal judge, but less than a general counsel? Find out where your pay ranks with our salary calculator.


Dr. Al Lee