The Poor Judges

William Glaberson reports that judges in New York feel they’re underpaid:

New York judges have not had a raise in 12 years, making the state one of the more extreme examples of a growing pay gap nationally between judges and other professionals, including partners at top law firms, who can earn 10 times the salary of the judge before whom they are arguing a case.

Now, for the first time in memory, judges are leaving the bench in relatively large numbers—not to retire, but to return to being practicing lawyers. Turnover in New York has increased rapidly in the last few years: nearly 1 in 10 judges are now leaving annually, a new study shows.

Recently we have seem some outrage regarding overpaid professors and corporate executives, but I think judges are a better example for discussion. Profs are mostly liberal Democrats and execs tend to be conservative Republicans, but judges are appointed by both parties, which removes the biggest political slant that readers will bring to the story.

OK, back to the New York state judges. Glaberson’s news article provides some salary details:

In New York State, at least a dozen have resigned and explicitly cited the pay. The latest is James M. McGuire, a judge on the intermediate state appeals court in Manhattan, who last week resigned his position at the white marble courthouse on Madison Avenue. His judicial salary was $144,000. He stepped down to be a partner at a law firm, Dechert LLP, where average partner pay is $1.4 million. . . . “I tormented myself for the longest period of time about whether I should go, because I love the work,” he said. “And then I realized, ‘I’ve got no choice. The only responsible thing for my family is to go.’ ” Justice McGuire, 57, has two children, ages 5 and 3.

Hey, let’s be honest here

Taking a new job that pays ten times as much—that seems reasonable to me. If someone offered me a job at $1.4 million a year, I’d consider it too! I don’t really need the $1.4 million but it would be hard to turn down that sort of money. If I was working at a job with no pay increases for 12 years, and I had the prospect of getting 10 times as much elsewhere, I’d probably jump at the chance.

But for McGuire to say this was “the only responsible thing for my family . . .”? C’mon. That judicial salary of $144K is roughly twice the median income of a family of four in America (link from here). Salaries and cost of living are higher in New York but not by that much.

But then I was wondering, if McGuire has two children, what does his wife do? Nowadays it’s common for the mothers of young children to work too. Or maybe he’s divorced and has to support the 2 kids plus alimony? I don’t know his personal situation. But I did some googling and found this news article, which says that McGuire’s wife is a prosecutor in the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s Office.

I don’t know how much they pay any particular Assistant U.S. Attorney, but if she’s been at the job for several years, I’m guessing that it’s close to $100K if not more.

As noted above, I have no problem at all with a judge quitting for the big bucks. But does he really need to bring his family in to this? They’re doing just fine. For him to say “I really had no choice financially” . . . well, that’s a strange definition of “no choice,” given that he and his wife make more than 3 times as much as the average American family in their situation.

Glaberson’s got another juicy quote:

Emily Jane Goodman, a State Supreme Court justice in Manhattan, said the practical effect of her stalled pay was that she had to sell a summer home in the Hamptons and was having trouble paying for increasing fees on her two-bedroom apartment in the city.

“Here I am,” Justice Goodman said, “in a position where I’m working to achieve justice for other people and I don’t feel that I’m experiencing justice.”

Good point. If I had a summer home in the Hamptons, I wouldn’t want to sell it either!

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

Andrew Gelman

Andrew Gelman is a professor of statistics and political science and director of the Applied Statistics Center at Columbia University.