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New York judges are leaving their duties, and the reason is salaries

 New York: William Glaberson*

Perhaps there is no better end to a career in law than in a judicial position. Taking the podium after years of standing in front of it gives one a sense of influence, respect, complacency, and, for the most part, a free car park. Then there is nothing but retirement or death.

But across the United States - and in New York State in particular - having a judicial office has had a downside in recent years, and that is the salary that judges receive. There has been no increase in judges' salaries in New York in 12 years, making the state one of the extreme examples of a growing pay gap between judges and other professionals, including partners of prominent law firms who earn ten times the salary of the judge before whom they argue their cases.

Judge James Maguire resigned to join a law firm (The New York Times)


Now, for the first time in a long time, judges are retiring in relatively large numbers to leave their posts, not in order to retire, but to return to the practice of law. The pace of this has increased in New York during the past few years, to find that one in ten judges leaves their office annually, according to a new study.


Within the state of New York, at least a dozen cases resigned, citing their salary. The most recent was James Maguire, a judge on the Manhattan Intermediate Court of Appeals who resigned last week from the white marble court on Madison Street. His salary as a judge was $144,000, and he left his position to be a partner at the law firm Dichert LLP, where the partner earns an average of $1.4 million.


New York, the state that officials say has had the longest unchanged salary for judges, is at the center of a debate within the United States over whether controversial rulings, court corruption and politicized judicial campaigns have eroded the support of the courts to the point where there is no circuit. Electoral calls for an increase in the salaries of judges. "I never expected to be rich as a judge, but I also didn't expect to be poor," says Robert Spolzino, who resigned as an appeals judge in Brooklyn two years ago to return to law practice.


New York judges were the best paid in the United States in the 1970s, but their salaries are now ranked 46th in the United States when calculating the cost of living, according to the National Center for State Courts.


Critics say some judges do not work hard, and that many of them would not have earned the high salary in professional work. Eric Posner, a law professor at the University of Chicago, said in a 2009 legal article with two other law professors that there is no evidence that judges do a better job if they are better paid. "The absence of raises is only a problem if judges weren't overpaid to begin with," he wrote in a recent email.


Indeed, through a series of interviews, judges have acknowledged that it may be difficult to justify increasing judges' salaries in difficult economic conditions. New York State Supreme Court justices receive $136,700. The state's top judge gets $156,000. Across the country, “the judge’s job is undervalued,” so there is little pressure to pay them well, says Seth Andersen, executive director of the American Judges Foundation in Des Moines, which studies and evaluates judicial systems.


Current and former judges have spoken of the pressures they feel in trying to avoid certain offers and when paying mortgages and tuition bills. Spolzino, 52, says he expected to remain in the judiciary until retirement, as judges used to do. "It's annoying to walk into a room and everyone gets a raise, and people laugh at your side," he said.


As a result of her lack of salary increase, Emily Jane Goodman, a state Supreme Court judge in Manhattan, says she has been forced to sell a summer home in the Haptons, and has also had problems paying for the increased fees for her two-room apartment in the city. "I am here in a position where I work to bring justice to the people, but I do not feel that I live in that justice," Judge Goodman said.


In one of his final days at the Madison Street Appeals Division, Judge Maguire, who was Governor George Pataki's first attorney, said he was increasingly saddened by the state's failure year after year to increase judges' pay. He added: “I have been tormented for a long time about the path to take because I love this job. Then I realized that I had no choice. The only responsible behavior for my family requires me to leave.” Judge Maguire is 57 years old and has two children, ages five and three.


Within New York, the financial pressures are particularly severe as prominent law firms compete for attorneys and now judges. In response to questions posed for this article, the state's Office of Court Administration examined the rates of judge decline. The analysis found that in 1999 48 of the 1,300 state judges left their posts. Last year, 110 judges left their posts, and the number of judges leaving their posts has risen sharply over the past five years.


New York Chief Justice Jonathan Lippmann said in an interview that the judges leaving office only showed part of the problem. "Why would a talented lawyer want to join an institution that hasn't even seen an increase in the cost of living over 12 years?" asked Judge Lippmann.


The failure of the state judiciary to increase judges' salaries since 1999 has been the subject of vigorous political debate and court battles before legislation was passed in November to create a judges' pay commission. A decision is expected by September on whether and by how much salaries for in-state judges will rise.


Within the United States, the salaries of many judges are generally lower than that of prominent lawyers, some academics, school administrators, elected officials, and even some court officials. Within New York City, some employees in legal professions earn more than the judges who work for them. US Chief Justice John Roberts has noted that federal judges' salaries are lower than those of law school deans and other law professors. He noted that the pay gap undermines the power of the federal courts.


The salaries of state court judges overall rose 34 percent to an average of $116,100 during the decade to 2005.


YearDistrict JudgesCircuit JudgesAssociate JusticesChief Justice
2022$223,400$236,900$274,200$286,700
2021$218,600$231,800$268,300$280,500
2020$216,400$229,500$265,600$277,700
2019$210,900$223,700$258,900$270,700
2018$208,000$220,600$255,300$267,000
2017$205,100$217,600$251,800$263,300
2016$203,100$215,400$249,300$260,700
2015$201,100$213,300$246,800$258,100
20141$199,100$211,200$244,400$255,500
2013$174,000$184,500$213,900$223,500
2012$174,000$184,500$213,900$223,500
2011$174,000$184,500$213,900$223,500
2010$174,000$184,500$213,900$223,500
2009$174,000$184,500$213,900$223,500
2008$169,300$179,500$208,100$217,400
2007$165,200$175,100$203,000$212,100
2006$165,200$175,100$203,000$212,100
2005$162,100$171,800$199,200$208,100
2004$158,100$167,600$194,300$203,000
2003$154,700$164,000$190,100$198,600
2002$150,000$159,100$184,400$192,600
2001$145,100$153,900$178,300$186,300
2000$141,300$149,900$173,600$181,400
1999$136,700$145,000$167,900$175,400
1998$136,700$145,000$167,900$175,400
1997$133,600$141,700$164,100$171,500
1996$133,600$141,700$164,100$171,500
1995$133,600$141,700$164,100$171,500
1994$133,600$141,700$164,100$171,500
1993$133,600$141,700$164,100$171,500
1992$129,500$137,300$159,000$166,200
19912$125,100$132,700$153,600$160,600
1990$96,600$102,500$118,600$124,000
1989$89,500$95,000$110,000$115,000
1988$89,500$95,000$110,000$115,000
19873$89,500$95,000$110,000$115,000
1986$78,700$83,200$104,100$108,400
1985$78,700$83,200$104,100$108,400
1984$76,000$80,400$100,600$104,700
1983$73,100$77,300$96,700$100,700
1982$73,100$77,300$96,700$100,700
1981$70,300$74,300$93,000$96,800
1980$67,100$70,900$88,700$92,400
19794$61,500$65,000$81,300$84,700
1978$54,500$57,500$72,000$75,000
19775$54,500$57,500$72,000$75,000
19766$44,000$46,800$66,000$68,700
1975$42,000$44,600$63,000$65,600
1974$40,000$42,500$60,000$62,500
1973$40,000$42,500$60,000$62,500
1972$40,000$42,500$60,000$62,500
1971$40,000$42,500$60,000$62,500
1970$40,000$42,500$60,000$62,500
19697$40,000$42,500$60,000$62,500
1968$30,000$33,000$39,500$40,000
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