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In the Name of Justice, Judges Should Get Fair Pay

Courts: Rookie lawyers often make more money than the people who decide on life, death and livelihoods.

August 06, 2000|MICHAEL P. JUDGE | Michael P. Judge is the Los Angeles public defender

California's judges recently received a modest pay raise, bringing the compensation of those serving on Superior Courts to about $133,000 per year. The so-called going rate for rookie lawyers who are top graduates of prestigious law schools hired by large law firms is $150,000 to $160,000 per year.

So the most knowledgeable, seasoned and reliable judges are not even keeping pace with brand new lawyers. And the judges' salaries fall far below what would be necessary to stanch the exodus of experienced judges into the lucrative enterprise of private judging, in which the two sides in some civil cases agree to remove themselves from the public court system to speed up the resolution of their lawsuits. In those cases, judges make $250 an hour and up, which translates to more than $250,000 a year, in addition to pension benefits, for working half-time.

Veteran trial judges handle the most serious and complex cases, which we all need to have reliably resolved, including billion-dollar contract disputes; million-dollar personal injury or medical malpractice claims; important civil rights litigation; dissolution of marriages, including child custody and support issues; and decisions in death penalty and other criminal cases, as well as conservatorships and cases involving abandoned, abused and neglected children.

Depriving judges of compensation commensurate with the importance of their function in society is unwise. It has resulted in a persistent hemorrhage of many of our best judges out of the public justice system. Moreover, it feeds the expansion of a separate justice system catering to the wealthy, in which controversies are resolved more promptly by judges who have fled the public justice system. To the extent that the powerful no longer have a stake in the public justice system, even fewer resources will be provided to it. Inevitably, the next step will be fewer rights and procedural safeguards for those who must use the public justice system.

There is no shortage of applicants to the bench, but retention of many of the most talented judges has been undermined by the significant erosion in their compensation. It is imperative that an increase on the order of 40%--to $186,200 a year, at least--be put into effect without delay, with a cost-of-living index to automatically adjust for inflation in the future.

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