I noted earlier that a pay raise for federal judges had been included in the bailout bill for the auto industry. Now the judicial pay raise has bitten the dust, at least temporarily, because it was draining votes from the legislation.
Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri announced on the Senate floor she would oppose the bill unless the judicial pay raise provision was stripped from the auto bailout. Sen. McCaskill is quoted as saying:
I always enthusiastically support judges when they seek pay raises. I strongly agree that they should be paid at a level that is competitive with what they would make in private practice. Ideally, they should be paid at least double their current salaries.
See this article about a speech by 11th Circuit Judge Peter Fay who points out that if judicial salaries had kept up with inflation since 1970, district court judges should be making about $342,000, and that their counterparts in Great Britain are paid the equivalent of $318,168.
I agree with Judge Fay.
Of course, the idea of raising judicial salaries includes recognition of their own strong professional qualities and the probability that many of them could make more money if they left the bench to join a big law firm willing to pay for their experience, insights, prestige and possible influence with their former colleagues. It may also include some consideration of the facts that they get paid every month, do not have wild fluctuations of income, have no entrepreneurial risk, and do not have to pay for office overhead or private health insurance with rapidly spiraling premium rates. And they are certainly not at risk of seeing all their hard-earned profits for a year or two suddenly evaporate because a judge ignores the evidence and misconstrues the law in order to make an inscrutable ruling in favor of a former court staff member.
In good times, the disparity between private practice and judicial salaries is fairly obvious. It is a more complex analysis in a recession when millions of Americans are out of work and/or facing foreclosure, even large law firms are laying off lawyers and staff, and many small firm and solo lawyers are struggling.
It is customary for members of Congress and federal judges to have the same salary. Congress is set for a $5,000 raise on January 1, and the proposal was to give judges the same raise to maintain parity.
Perhaps in solidarity with the American people who are hurting now, Congress should give up its own pay raise for the duration of the recession, and then come back later with a strong pay raise for both Congress and the judiciary. At that point, it would be appropriate to increase the salaries of both well beyond a paltry $5,000 adjustment.
Ken Shigley is an Atlanta, Georgia trial attorney with a practice is focused on cases of catastrophic personal injury and wrongful death arising from commercial truck and bus accidents. He is a former chair of the Southeastern Motor Carrier Liability Institute, and is a frequent speaker at national continuing legal education programs on trucking liability cases. He has been rated as a "Super Lawyer" (Atlanta Magazine), one of the "Legal Elite" (Georgia Trend Magazine), and a Certified Civil Trial Advocate (National Board of Trial Advocacy,). Mr. Shigley is currently Secretary of the 40,000 member State Bar of Georgia. To increase capacity for handling more and larger cases, he recently became "of counsel" with the law firm of Chambers, Aholt & Rickard which has an extensive trucking liability practice.