Depending on where they serve, a judge's chamber can either be a harrowing place to work or one of the last secure jobs in America. It's a difference that largely comes down to how the federal government picks its judges and how the states do.
All judicial appointments in federal court come with life tenure. Readers following the ramp-up to 2020's presidential election may have seen quite a bit of discussion around judicial appointments, and this is why. A president who can place an ideologically sympathetic 35 year old on the bench can all but guarantee decades of opinions favorable to that president's party.
By contrast each state runs its own court system, where the judges don't have it so easy.
In addition to the federal courts, each state runs its own judiciary. If you are unlucky enough to come into contact with the legal system as a private citizen, it was almost certainly in state court. Only Rhode Island puts its judges on the bench for life. Every other state judge serves for a term of years and each state uses a different system to select them. The most common systems include appointment by the state governor, appointment by a commission and election.
While common, and a part of American justice system since the founding of the country, electing judges to the bench has generally proven to be an unmitigated disaster. It has led to a full-fledged system of legalized bribery, with people who donate to re-election campaigns also appearing as parties in front of the same judges to whom they've donated.
What's more, electing judges encourages sentences based more on popularity than justice. State courts handle 94% of all felony cases nationwide, and researchers have found consistent proof that elections make those judges less sympathetic to the accused. Upcoming elections, televised attack ads and the competitiveness of a race all link directly to judges issuing more punitive sentences as they compete to seem tough on crime.
Yet for all of this stress, at the very least, this is a relatively well-paid profession. Considering that we want the nation's sharpest lawyers sitting on the bench, men and women who could become millionaires if they walked into any corporate law firm, this makes sense. Here's what they make and where they make it.
How Much Do Federal Judges Make?
Federal judges have their salaries set by Congress.
Setting judicial pay is a political process like any other. Congress determines the rate of pay largely based on what it feels is necessary to attract and keep top legal talent on the bench. While this rate is generous relative to the income of the average American, it is mitigated significantly by perks of the position. Most notably these include lifetime tenure and a very light workload compared to the hours of a practicing attorney.
Not to mention the significant prestige; when a judge calls someone, their assistant asks the recipient to "please wait for the judge." Calling a partner at Skadden Arps who bills $1,000 per hour and putting them on hold, that's power.
The only restriction on federal judicial pay comes from Article III, Section I of the Constitution. Congress cannot reduce a judge's pay during his or her tenure. This is to prevent politicians from effectively firing judges by reducing their pay until the judge has to quit.
The pay scale for a federal judge in 2019:
• District Court (the trial courts of the federal system) - $210,900
• Circuit Judges (the appeals courts of the federal system) - $223,700
• Associate Justices of the Supreme Court - $258,900
• Chief Justice of the Supreme Court - $270,700
What Are State Judges?
This section is far more difficult. The truth is, there's no actual answer to this question. Here's why:
How Many State Judges Are There?
The first trouble with figuring out how much state judges earn is that there are SO MANY of them. This, despite our font choice, is not hyperbolic. Each of the 50 states and Puerto Rico has its own judicial system.
Inside each of these judicial systems are courts that hear trials, courts that hear appeals and courts that render a final decision. (This is often called a circuit or superior court, an appellate court and a supreme court.) Then there are states that have courts of law and courts of equity (the courts that deal with money and injunctions, respectively). There are the courts that deal with purely administrative matters, like unemployment and labor disputes, family courts and more.
The result? The states employ a lot of judges.
What Do State Judges Do?
And those judges do so many different things.
Circuit court judges hear cases and weigh evidence, while their appellate colleagues weigh issues of law and policy. Administrative judges hear high-volume cases, handling a half dozen matters per day. Family law judges must mediate divorces and decide the best interests of small children.
At the state court level, judges come in many, many different shapes and sizes. There is no such thing as an average judge or an average salary.
What Do State Judges Make?
Let's try to figure this out anyway!
We can't answer the question precisely, but that doesn't mean we can't provide useful information. What we can do is take a look at some representative data that gives a sense of how much judges make across the board.
Average Judicial Salary
According to Indeed, the average salary of everyone who identifies themselves as a "Judge" is $86,968 per year.
This is less helpful than one might think. This salary can include everyone from a highly paid Chief Justice to someone who judges local carwashes. As you'll see, this number has virtually no relationship with the actual income of serving judges.
Highest/Lowest Paid States
This is a more useful way of looking at the data.
While every state has its own court system, they all share the same structure of having a court of first instance (the trial level courts discussed above) and at least one court of appeals. The classic model of a judge is the role played in a court of first instance. This is the person who hears a trial, rules on evidence and ultimately pronounces a sentence.
The five highest-paid state court trial judges will probably not surprise you. According to the National Center for State Courts they are:
Number 1 - New York, $210,900
Number 2 - California, $207,424
Number 3 - Illinois, $207,291
Number 4 - Hawaii, $207,084
Number 5 - South Carolina, $191,954
South Carolina aside, a state not known for its high prices, these pay scales track with costs of living. The key to remember about a judge is that salaries are set for them across the board. So when the legislature in Albany sets its pay scale for judges, it isn't just writing a budget for the bench in Buffalo. It also has to keep Manhattan in mind.
This also drives the bottom of the pay scale. Setting aside Puerto Rico, where trial judges make the least amount of money in the United States at $89,600, the five states where trial judges make the least are:
Number 46 - Maine, $133,286
Number 47 - South Dakota, $131,059
Number 48 - Kentucky, $130,926
Number 49 - Kansas, $128,636
Number 50 - West Virginia, $126,000
What Drives State Judicial Pay?
The pay scale of state judges is largely a matter of politics. Like at the federal level, judicial pay scales are set by legislature. As a result, most of the decision has to do with budgets. Put another way, judges make what the state can afford to pay them. A few key factors are involved in that decision.
State Wealth and Cost of Living
States with less money in the budget, such as Kansas in the wake of Sam Brownback's experiment, can afford to pay less. States with more expensive cities, such as New York, Massachusetts and California, have to pay more so that their judges can afford to preside over urban branches.
These are two of the most critical elements that drive judicial pay.
Private Sector Competition
We referenced this above.
An important factor in judicial pay is competition from the private sector. While courts will never match the salaries offered by private firms (corporate attorneys can make $190,000 plus bonus in their first year out of law school), they do have to at least offer judges a comfortable standard of living. When politicians set judicial salaries, they have to keep in mind that the law's best and brightest have many options.
Local Costs of Living
Both at the state and federal level, judicial pay is standardized across the board. This means that a federal judge serving in Wyoming earns the same income as one serving in California. Someone serving on the state bench in Ayer, Mass., draws the same salary as a colleague in Boston. Pay scale must reflect that. While legislatures don't want to throw their money away, ultimately pay will reflect the highest cost of living in that jurisdiction.
Hierarchy of Courts
The appellate court is typically seen as more prestigious and selective than the trial court, just as lawyers who argue appeals are held in higher regard than those who handle trials. Courts of final instance (called the Supreme Court in most states) are more selective still.
Federal trial and appellate courts are considered more prestigious than state courts, which in turn are more prestigious than any form of administrative hearing either at the state or federal level.
Pay reflects this. Appellate judges make more than trial judges. Justices on a court of final instance will earn more than the appellate judges whose work they review.