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.