Are Judges Underpaid?

Stephen Larson, a federal district judge in California, resigned recently, citing his low salary. (District judges make $169,300 per year.) This has resulted in a robust discussion of whether federal judges are underpaid. Various opinions on the issue are available here, here, and here.

Although I don’t have any special expertise in compensation issues, two points made by others in the debate struck me as worth repeating. First, any discussion of judges’ salaries should include a discussion of the very generous retirement and other benefits offered to judges. And second, federal judgeships remain highly sought-after, including among the best and brightest lawyers, and resignation rates are incredibly low.

Even assuming that federal judges are adequately compensated, though, what about state court judges? In North Carolina, at least, they make far less than their federal counterparts. As of 2006, North Carolina Superior Court judges were paid $115,289, and district court judges were paid $101,376. The state, like the federal government, offers attractive benefits to judges, but even so, it is worth asking whether judicial salaries in North Carolina are too low to attract the best possible talent. (The North Carolina Bar Association — historically an advocate for higher judicial pay — is asking that question, as reported here.)

A bit of context provides food for thought. The average North Carolina worker earns $38,230 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The average North Carolina lawyer makes just over $113,000. First-year associates at the largest law firms now make $160,000 per year, as reported here.

I don’t know whether the quality of the our judiciary is being adversely impacted by judges’ salaries. The salaries are still pretty good compared to what most nonlawyers, and many lawyers, make. And the prestige of the job counts for something, too. (Heck, some judges are even willing to serve for free, as this inspiring story shows.) But my unscientific sense is that judicial compensation in North Carolina is at least bordering on being too low. One fact that lends some weight to that worry: big firm lawyers rarely become state court judges in North Carolina. That may in part be because of the process — i.e., the need to run for election — but it may also in part be because of the salary. And once a whole segment of the legal community rules out serving on the bench, the strength and diversity of the judiciary may be at risk.

6 thoughts on “Are Judges Underpaid?”

  1. Just from an economic perspective I would be concerned if your average salary for a judge is roughly the same as your average salary for a lawyer.

    Presumably we want judges to come from the ranks of more in demand lawyers, which means that the average judge should be taking a pay cut. Its hard to imagine an industry where pay cuts don’t affect recruitment.

  2. You can personally observe both sides of this debate in our county (Guilford) right now. A bar election and governor’s appointment will soon fill a recently vacated District Court judicial seat.

    A few of the most senior, respected (and compensated) memebers of bar told me quietly that while they might otherwise be interested in the seat, they didn’t want to take a “substantial” pay cut. Nevertheless, by my last count, a substantial number of very qualified and intelligent lawyers (any of whom I’d be proud to support) have put their names in for consideration.

    It thus seems that both positions are correct. While many of our best, brightest and most experianced may be deterred by the current salaries, there remains a healthy number of excellent attornies that are willing, able and eager to serve our state from the bench.

  3. I think judges’ salaries in North Carolina are too low. I think that with the dramatic increase in national/international law firms setting up shop in North Carolina (particularly in and around the Triangle and in Charlotte) and paying the astronomical starting salaries to first-year associates, that North Carolina readjust judges’ salaries to be more in step with other states.

  4. Although the legal profession has always drawn those motivated by avarice, I believe the majority of lawyers, here in North Carolina and else where, practice for the true love of the law. That said, it still takes some soul searching to change from a practicing attorney to a judge. I doubt that given the economy of most southern States these days, that compensation will ever be commensurate with the duties and sacrifices of the state judiciary.

  5. Let’s get real here. Should a Raleigh, NC Superior\District judge be paid more than let’s say…a Eighth Judicial District judges Lenoir, Wayne and Greene Counties? Of course when viewed economies of scale, population, real estate, cost of living etc… As a matter of fact, these judges are paid too much considering other factors (combined districts) and the unethical way cases are prolonged unnecessarily for other reasons not discussed here. In major metro areas law is in motion and practiced not in secrecy but public view such as Raleigh, Durham, and Wake. Sit in a remote county court!! Pay raise? No.


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.