Somin Comments on Salary Gap Between Judges and Private Practice Lawyers

Talented lawyers and academics are still drawn to the prospect of obtaining a seat on the federal bench despite the widening gap between the salaries of judges and private sector lawyers, according to Professor Ilya Somin.

Somin's comments were carried in a St. Louis Post-Dispatch news story regarding efforts by former Senator John Danforth and former Representative Richard Gephardt to advocate for a break in the the link between the salaries of federal judges and members of Congress on the basis that Congress' reluctance to raise its members' salaries has had the effect of keeping federal judges' earnings far below that of lawyers in private practice.

Danforth, Gephardt: Raise judges' pay, St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), May 13, 2007. By Grant Slater.

Members of Congress have hitched their salaries to judges' but rarely give themselves a pay raise to avoid drawing the ire of voters at election time, when talk of approving your own pay raise doesn't play well on television.

"'They don't want to see a commercial in the next campaign saying, 'Sen. X voted for pay increases,' Danforth said. 'Their interest in voting against pay increases shouldn't penalize judges.'

"The linkage has kept legislators' pay steady and also stifled the pay of judges, according to a report released last month by the Brookings Institution and the American Enterprise Institute.

"Federal district judges make the same salary as members of Congress, $165,200. Private-practice lawyers can earn anywhere from $100,000 a year, the salary of an entry-level lawyer in the St. Louis area, to more than $1 million a year, which Chief Justice John Roberts earned before taking an $800,000 pay cut to join the U.S. Supreme Court.

"Gephardt said the link came from Constitutional entitlement attitudes in Congress that equal pay should be afforded to equal branches of government.

"As lawyers' salaries continued to skyrocket, Congress voted nine years in a row, during Gephardt's tenure, to forgo the annual cost-of-living increase for themselves and, consequently, for federal district judges.

"With salaries flat-lined in public service, the salary gap between judges and private-practice lawyers widened.

"'For somebody who is a practicing lawyer, often times to become a federal judge would be an enormous sacrifice,' Danforth said.

"But some legislators and legal scholars say a federal judgeship comes with other perks - a lax performance review, a lighter workload and more power and prestige - that make the pay cut worth it.

"Ilya Somin, a law professor at George Mason University, said taxpayers would be reluctant to support higher salaries for a positions that already attract qualified professionals.

"'There are lots of talented lawyers or academics who would love to become federal judges if the opportunity were to arise,' Somin said.

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