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Leaving So Soon Will Pay Issues Mean Only the Wealthy Can Afford to Serve?
"Federal judges are overworked, underpaid and under-appreciated," says
Judge Hector M. Laffitte, and so he’s leaving the District of Puerto
Rico. After 23 years of service to the federal Judiciary, in one of the
busiest districts in the First Circuit, he’s returning to private
practice. And pay—the lack of it—is a major factor in his decision. "Our
last pay increase was in 1989. Salary erosion is hurting judges, and I
can’t see an increase in our future," Laffitte says. "I’ve lost all
He didn’t join the Judiciary to make money. "My first
year’s salary as a federal judge in 1983 was essentially my expense
account in private practice," he says. "But life had been good to me and
I decided to give something back. I wanted to serve. I could survive
because of the reserve I’d built up." Now, however, the financial
cushion he’d established before joining the federal bench has been
depleted. He warns that other federal judges may be in the same
"People don’t understand," he says. "They think that
government service is a revolving door. Judges aren’t meant to be like
that. The more experience we have, the better and faster we work. But as
long as judges are denied pay increases, eventually we’ll wind up with
only the wealthy who can afford to serve."
Similarly, the Chief Justice, in his 2006 Year-End Report on the Judiciary
warned that a Judiciary restricted to "persons so wealthy that they can
afford to be indifferent to the level of judicial compensation, or
people for whom the judicial salary represents a pay increase. . .would
not be the sort of Judiciary on which we have historically depended to
protect the rule of law in this country."
"Judges are being put in a beggar’s position," says Laffitte, "in asking for a pay raise. We’re just not on Congress' radar."
In the past six years, 38 judges have left the federal
bench, including 17 in the last two years. As the Chief Justice said in
his year-end report, "Judges who willingly make substantial sacrifices
in support of public service are being asked to bear unreasonable
burdens. In the face of decades of congressional inaction, many judges
who must attend to their families and futures have no realistic choice
except to retire from judicial service and return to private practice."
Across the country, Chief Judge David Levi is boxing up
his chambers files after a long judicial career. He’s leaving the
Eastern District of California, where he has been a U.S. district judge
since 1990, to become dean of Duke Law School. At age 55 and with nearly
17 years on the bench, he is moving on. He speaks with some frustration
of a retirement system where, until a judge reaches 65 and 15 years of
service, there is absolutely no vesting.
"It’s quite an unfair financial arrangement," says Levi.
"It looks very good to people that if you reach 65 and you’ve had 15
years of service, you can retire on a full salary until the day you die.
In fact, it means there’s nothing for your spouse, except for whatever
life insurance you have, if you were to die the day before you turned 65
or even the day after. You get absolutely nothing."
Levi believes pay issues, along with an all-or-nothing
retirement compensation system, take a heavy toll. "People become judges
because they want to serve. That’s the overall motivation," he says.
"And judges are quite prepared to make financial sacrifices. But at some
point you get to a tipping point where judges say, 'Look, there are
just too many other opportunities out there—also with a service
component, that are interesting and important, that permit a significant
contribution to our legal institutions—where the pay is much greater,
where there aren’t the same pension problems, and where I can take
better care of my spouse and children.'"
In his experience, says Levi, judges are not, "in it to
feel good about themselves; they are in it to do something for the
nation." His district has over 800 weighted case filings per judge, well
over the national average of 489. To help the district, two senior
judges—who could have reduced their caseloads to a quarter of an active
judge’s—instead carry full caseloads. "If you combine a crushing
caseload with the lagging pay," says Levi, "I think it puts burdens on
our judges that are neither fair nor reasonable. And not everybody will
want, or be able, to accept these burdens. So over time, it will affect
who is willing to join the federal bench."
Both Levi and Laffitte leave with an appreciation for
their time on the bench. Both call it a great job and an opportunity for
service that they’ve enjoyed. Both, however, also call it a difficult
and at times stressful job. And like the Chief Justice, both are uneasy
for the future of the Judiciary.