Henderson on Judicial Pay: Constitutional Crises Everywhere or Nowhere?

Cite this Article
Joshua D. Wright, Henderson on Judicial Pay: Constitutional Crises Everywhere or Nowhere?, Truth on the Market (January 27, 2007), https://truthonthemarket.com/2007/01/27/henderson-on-judicial-pay-constitutional-crises-everywhere-or-nowhere/

Bill Henderson has a nice post on Chief Justice Roberts’ claim that judicial pay has reached the point of creating a “constitutional crisis.” Lots of bloggers (see, e.g., my colleague Ilya Somin at VC) have made the point that they are not impressed with the data the Chief has mustered in favor the assertion that the quality of the federal bench is likely to suffer as the gap between judicial pay and pay in private practice widens (or that a shift in composition of the federal bench towards fewer lawyers from private practice is a demonstrably bad thing, much less constitutional crisis). Most of this discussion has involved pointing out weaknesses in the Chief’s empirical evidence in support of his claim and some educated guesswork about the relevant elasticities of supply for high quality judicial candidates with respect to pay.  Though I think it it is very difficult to say something meaningful about these elasticities without data.

In any event, I think Bill’s post adds something new by attempting to reframe the debate a bit and raising some issues I had not thought about in relation to the Chief Justice’s plea for more compensation.  The first is that federal judges make much higher salaries than their state counterparts and so, as Bill writes, “it appears that we also have several dozen ‘constitutional cris[es]’ at the state level.” Second, Bil notes that while Am Law 50 partner and CLO salaries have grown dramatically as of late, both federal judiciary and solo/ small firm compensation has not done nearly as well. Bill asks why this gap in pay does not trigger the same sorts of concern over the independence of lawyers more generally?

These are both interesting points. With respect to state court judges, I presume that Chief Justice Roberts (if confronted with the data) would be more than happy to advocate for higher salaries in state court as well. But Bill is certainly right that if a gap in judicial / private pay creates constitutional crisis, we may be in the middle of more crises than we knew!  With respect to the plight of the solo/small firm practitioner, however, I’m not sure I follow what Bill is getting at. One obvious difference between judicial pay and practitioner pay is that the latter is set in the market in response to economic forces rather than by Congress in response to political forces. In other words, if the market sets much higher compensation levels for big law lawyers than solo practitioners — this is a valuable signal about the best use of lawyerly resources. In that setting, it is difficult to understand the sense in which these attorneys are underpaid, or why the gap would be problematic at all.
Third, Bill writes that:

“district and appellate judges working in large metropolitan areas will likely live in smaller homes or endure longer commutes. And the Judge’s kids may have to apply for loans to pay for college or law school, including federal Stafford loans, which are the lifeblood of higher education. In other words, their problems will be more like 98% of the American electorate, albeit still very much at the high end. Why is this a “constitutional crisis”? Some of us might call it “sensible policy.””

While I think that my prior is to agree with Bill’s punchline (and the position taken by most bloggers I’ve read) that this is not a constitutional crisis, I’m not quite sure that I agree with this third point. It depends who is on the margin doesn’t it?  And that depends, again, on the relevant elasticities. One possibility is that in expensive metropolitan areas the marginal candidate will be the one Bill describes. It is also quite possible that the marginal candidate in such areas is sufficiently wealthy such that the pay cut in going to the federal bench has little effect on the family’s financial well-being (though the Luttig examples suggests the former certainly does occur).  In any event, my point is only that it is really hard to talk about prospective changes in the composition of the pool of candidates without better data than we have (and are likely to have given the nature of these decisions) on candidates.