The Cost of Justice: Stagnant Judicial Salaries Play Role in Exodus from Bench

According to a recent article in the New York Times, stagnant salaries for judges and the growing pay gap between public and private legal salaries have led to increased turnover for judges – especially in New York. In that state, turnover has markedly increased over the last few years with almost 1 in 10 judges now leaving annually.  New York judges have not had a raise in 12 years and other legal professionals, including partners at top law firms, can earn 10 times as much as their judicial counterparts.

Throughout the 1970’s, judges in New York made out well relative to other states: they were the top paid judges in the country.  That’s in stark contrast to now, as judicial salaries in the state now rank 46th in the country when adjusted for cost of living, according to a new report by the National Center for State Courts.

The NYT article references a law review article by Roy A. Schotland, an emeritus law professor at Georgetown, which revealed that the salaries of state trial judges nationally rose 34 percent to a median of $116,100 in the decade ending in 2005, but during the same period, the median partners’ share of profits at large law firms jumped 141 percent to $957,500. In an interview with the paper, Professor Schotland, said that, nationally, stagnant pay was “the single most important problem for our courts.”

Based on data in the above-mentioned NCSC report, as of January 1, 2011:

  • Highest Court: Salary ranges for each state’s highest court judges ranged from a high of $218K (California) to a low of $112K (Mississippi), with a median of $146K.
  • Intermediate Appellate Court: The highest paid judges were in California ($204K) with the lowest paid in Mississippi ($105K). National median salary was $140K.   
  • General-Jurisdiction Trial Court: These trial court judges made anywhere from $104K (Mississippi) to $178K (Illinois), with a median salary of $132,500.  However, when you adjust for cost of living, things change considerably. Illinois trial court judges remain the highest paid in the country at $186K, but Hawaii plummets to the lowest paid at $82K.

  Download the Table in Excel: "Cost-of-Living-Adusted Salaries for General Jurisdiction Trial Court Judges" 

Source: National Center for State Courts

You can also check out Table 5.4 in the Book of the States: Compensation of Judges of Appellate Courts and General Trial Courts and learn more about state judicial systems throughout Book of the States Chapter 5.