My law school classmate and long-time friend, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Stephanie Manis, has announced that she will be taking senior status on October 31st.
In law school, Judge Manis was a young mom going back to law school after working several years as a social worker. With a spouse and three young children, she had a more mature perspective than those of us who were straight out of college, single, naive, and unburdened by adult responsibilities. After graduation she clerked for a Georgia Supreme Court Justice, then moved on to the Georgia Attorney General’s office. She was appointed to Superior Court in 1995, and has been a bright, engaged, stalwart judge for twelve years. I doubt that there is a judge on the bench for whom I have any higher personal and professional regard.
For years, I aspired to become a judge. In 2002 I made the "short list" for a judicial appointment. At the interview, the Governor at that time asked, "what would possess you to give up your law practice to go on the bench?" I explored the possibility of running for an open seat in ’04 but realized I would have to raise and spend nearly half a million dollars to be competitive in an election campaign for a job that would involve a substantial pay cut. Judge Manis and I had a long talk over lunch about the pros and cons of seeking a judgeship at that time. While I decided not to run, I considered the possibility that whenever she took senior status I might seek the appointment.
Those of us who closely observe the judicial system see that, at least in Fulton County, there is a tendency for judicial positions to attract people who come from government careers, e.g., Assistant Attorney General, Assistant District Attorney, County Attorney, etc., rather than lawyers who come from private practice. Government lawyers have time invested in retirement systems that are typically very compatible with the judicial retirement system, and the judicial salary is at least a small step up from most other government attorney positions. It is less common, especially in metro counties, for lawyers in a successful private practice to become judges. Many — though not all — of those who do appear to have substantial assets, a spouse in a highly compensated field, or both. That is the economic reality in light of the crisis in judicial compensation, whereby both state and federal judges are paid on par with a first or second year associate in a large law firm.
While many of these public servants make excellent judges, what the judicial system loses is the perspective of lawyers who have spent decades practicing law and litigating cases in the private sector. It is important to pay judges enough that private practice lawyers in their prime years can afford to go on the bench and still send their kids to college. While judicial salaries are attractive to government lawyers and less successful private practitioners with political connections, and do not deter those who are independently wealthy, reasonably successful middle class lawyers in private practice, and with families to support, simply cannot afford the pay cut. With the crisis in judicial compensation, it is amazing that we have as many good judges as we do.
Even when a seasoned private practice lawyer with an excellent professional reputation does go through the nomination process, the tendency of Governors of both parties has been to pick government lawyers and political figures over seasoned private practice litigators, so the reaction of many who could afford the pay cut is, "why bother?" In the last couple of rounds of Fulton County judicial appointments, I have seen friends who would have been stellar judges passed over in favor of young government lawyers who are fine, but have negligible private practice experience.
I have two kids in college, my practice is going well, we have a single income household, and I have no political chips to cash in. So, to answer my friends who have asked, I will not seek appointment to the open position on Fulton Superior Court.
As a member of the State Bar Executive Committee and Board of Governors, I will continue to support a significant and long overdue increase in pay for all our trial and appellate judges, hoping it will benefit the system by attracting lawyers slightly younger than me from private practice to the bench in the future.