Working Class Judges
15 Pages Posted: 15 Mar 2009 Last revised: 14 May 2009
Date Written: March 13, 2009
In recent years, a steady chorus of dignitaries has decried the low pay of federal judges and suggested that the federal judiciary is on the brink of losing its best and its brightest. The persistent nature of these claims should give us pause. Scott Baker's recent study empirically evaluates these claims by examining the relationship between judicial salaries and the work habits and voting patterns of federal appellate judges. If large pay disparities are indeed eroding the quality of the federal bench, Baker theorizes this likely results in more ideological voting, fewer dissents, longer delays in issuing opinions, and a self-selection of judges who are intent on maximizing their influence within the federal judiciary. To test these hypotheses, Baker undertook the formidable task of assembling the requisite datasets, which he then posted on the Internet for other researchers to use. Along with the ingenuity of his research design, we applaud Baker's industry and transparency. Thanks to his efforts, there is now an empirical literature surrounding the debate over federal judicial pay.
At the end of his inquiry, Baker concludes that higher judicial salaries would have virtually no effect on the performance of federal appellate judges. The purpose of this Reply is to qualify Baker's interpretation of his results, at least with regard to judges located in the "Top Five" legal markets of New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. In his original analysis, Baker relies upon the average law firm partnership compensation, adjusted for years in practice and region, to estimate the forgone income - and hence opportunity costs - of each federal judge. Baker explicitly anticipated the possibility that this variable would understate the opportunity cost in large legal markets; thus, he included a Top Five variable plus an interaction term, which captures the effect of forgone earnings when a judge is located in one of the nation's five largest legal markets. Baker's discussion, however, does not formally address the significance of the interaction term, which requires some additional steps to properly interpret.
Based on our reanalysis of Baker's specifications, it appears that judges in the largest legal markets often behave differently than their smaller market counterparts. Specifically, the lower judicial salaries in Top Five markets strongly correlate with behavior Baker characterizes as "ideological" or "influence-motivated." Conversely, while lower judicial salaries in small markets correlate with longer delays in issuing opinions, the exact opposite effect describes the behavior of judges in Top Five metropolitan areas.
Our brief Reply proceeds as follows. Part I provides our reanalysis of Baker's data. Part II establishes an additional comparative context that allows us to speculate why Top Five legal markets may foster a more intense tradeoff of influence versus remuneration. Indeed, as we note, the real or perceived financial tradeoffs are so enormous - and conspicuous - in Top Five markets that federal judges may feel they have been lumped together with a large, faceless working class. We conclude by suggesting that the debate over judicial salaries is rooted in the more general problem of greater income disparity within the American legal profession.
Keywords: judges, pay, judicial pay
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