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April 2007

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This article is in the news archives --- for current news go to the Third Branch News.


The Last Straw

Ronald J. Hedges is leaving the bench after 21 years as a magistrate judge in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey. The local legal newspaper reports he is leaving because he’s tired of “seeing law clerks go out and get higher salaries as first year associates than I have, after all my years of experience.”

But talking with Magistrate Judge Hedges you hear the frustration of a man leaving a job he loves.

“I became a magistrate judge to do public service,” says Hedges. “As a former litigator, I considered this job to be the pinnacle of the legal profession, the best job in the world. I wish I could stay.”

The last straw came this year when hope for a cost-of-living adjustment evaporated. Hedges makes $151,984 a year. Outside of COLAs—six of which failed to materialize in the last 14 years—he hasn’t had a pay increase since 1991.

“It’s hard not to be dissatisfied and disillusioned,” he said, “when you see your earnings erode over the years, and nothing being done to protect judges’ salaries. I hope the Chief Justice’s efforts to get a pay raise for federal judges are successful. The truth of the matter is, the salary is inadequate.”

He’s also not optimistic that a single pay raise can correct the long-standing problem. “Even if we got a raise this year,” Hedges said, “it might only be a matter of time before we fell back into a pattern of missed pay raises. There is simply no mechanism in place to ensure adequate raises.”

Hedges will return to private practice, joining the firm of Nixon Peabody in New York City where he will earn more than he did as a magistrate judge. And he has some parting words of advice. First, he has no problem with judges drawing salaries in the $300,000 range. “If judges’ salaries do increase,” he said, “they should be commensurate with their market equivalent.” And as for those who say there are always people willing to take the job when judges leave the bench, he warns, “You’re losing corporate memory and institutional knowledge with every judge who leaves the bench. And the erosion of judges’ salaries and loss of sitting judges cannot help but raise threats to judicial independence, which we all know (or should know) is vital to the functioning of our Constitution.”

In addition to Magistrate Judge Hedges, the District of New Jersey has lost six Article III judges through resignations and retirements since 2000. All the judges entered private practice after leaving the bench.

According to statistics cited by Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. in his 2006 Year End Report, when adjusted for inflation, the average U.S. worker’s wages have risen 17.8 percent in real terms since 1969. Federal judicial pay has declined 23.9 percent—creating a 41.7 percent gap. “In the face of decades of congressional inaction,” Roberts wrote, “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.” In the past six years, 38 judges have left the federal bench, including 17 in the last two years.