Federal Judge Resigns, Says He Needs More Money

By Kevin Fayle on September 17, 2009 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

U.S. District Judge Stephen G. Larson has announced that he's stepping down from the federal bench because he's not making enough money to support his family, which includes seven children all under the age of 18.

Larson's announcement on Tuesday that he would leave his seat in the Central District of California has reignited the ongoing debate on judicial salaries and their effect (or lack of effect) on the federal judiciary. 

Chief Justice John Roberts of the US Supreme Court stated in 2006 that the low judicial salaries have "now reached a level of constitutional crisis." 
Federal judges received a small increase last year, but that hasn't cleared the debate on the topic.  The current pay scale has federal district judges receiving $169,300; federal appeals court judges, $179,500; Supreme Court justices, $208,100; and the chief justice, $217,400.

Several scholars, and Judge Richard Posner of the 7th Circuit, disagree with the chief justice that "low" (after all, federal judges do have higher-than-average incomes, though significantly lower than the average income for law firm partners) salaries have affected the ability of the judiciary to effectively carry out its responsibilities.

Proponents of salary increases argue that the low judicial pay makes it difficult to entice the best legal minds away from lucrative private practices, and forces some judges to choose the route that Judge Larson took and resign while still in their prime in order to make more money.

First of all, I'm just going to get it out of the way and say it: the guy has seven kids.  It's entirely possible that his resignation has more to do with that choice in his life than the actual state of judicial salaries. 

Or maybe it's a combination.  A seat on the federal bench comes with intangible benefits - like power, authority, respect and the chance to leave a lasting imprint on the law.  For many people, those benefits (plus the great pension and health insurance plans) are enough to keep them on the bench, despite the relatively low pay. 

If you have seven kids, however, those perks might not be enough to get you by, especially when you're looking at the possibility of seven college tuition bills.

(Although, as David Lat points out in Above the Law, there are judges who manage to get by with large families.)

I believe judges deserve higher salaries.  Most of them work tremendously hard to manage their caseload and administer justice in an honorable and ethical manner (although this blog does love to point out the outliers).  Plus, from a strictly practical standpoint, it's a good idea to pay judges well so they aren't tempted to compromise their integrity for some extra cash.

And speaking of hardworking judges, Larson's resignation leaves only one judge in that division of the Central District, and the Central District judges were already working on caseloads that were 42% higher than the national average.

If people are unhappy about Larson's resignation, that judge might just be the unhappiest. 
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