When the Judiciary Brings a Lawsuit, Who Gets To Hear the Case?

Slate's blog on legal issues.
April 11 2008 9:53 AM

When the Judiciary Brings a Lawsuit, Who Gets To Hear the Case?

By way of Dan Slater , we learn that Chief Judge Judith Kaye and the New York state court system she leads have brought suit against the legislature and governor of New York. The complaint argues that the legislature and executive have violated the principle of separation of powers—violated judicial independence—by failing to provide "adequate" compensation for judges.

The strangely coy complaint doesn't actually tell us what New York judges' salaries are. But they are easy to find . In 2007, trial judges earned $136,700; intermediate appellate judges earned $144,000; and high court judges earned $151,200. The nationwide medians for state judges for that year were $128,953, $139,694, and $143,669, respectively. So in nominal terms, New York judges do reasonably well compared with other state judges. They make well above the median family income of around $60,000 (in New York) and are lodged comfortably in the right tail of the income distribution.

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The complaint makes a number of arguments. The cost of living in New York state is about 25 percent above the national average; taking the cost of living into account, New York trial judges are ranked 48 th or even 49 th (this source ranks them 42 nd ). New York judges used to be among the most highly paid, but they haven't received any salary increase since 1999, and since then inflation has devoured about 25 percent of their salaries. But under what principle of law do New York judges have to be paid more than judges in other states? Or for that matter, why shouldn't they be 50 th ? Someone has to be 50 th ! The complaint has a distinctly Lake Wobegon-ish air: If judges in all states have to be paid above average in order to preserve their judicial independence, then all judicial salaries will rise inexorably toward infinity. That, or the laws of mathematics will have to be struck down.

The complaint notes that other New York employees have received salary increases, and so today many earn more than judges. New York judges also earn less than many lawyers, deans, professors, and other people in the legal profession in New York, including some first-year associates at law firms. New York judges used to earn the same amount as federal district judges but now earn $30,000 less (of course, federal judges also think  they are underpaid). And everyone in New York appears to agree that judges deserve pay increases, even the governor and legislative leaders; but bills to increase pay have been tied up, and meanwhile the legislature has managed to spend millions of dollars on pork projects.

All of this seems lamentable and bad policy, maybe, but a violation of separation of powers? How exactly? The complaint harps on the threat to judicial independence, but how would a modest (by legal standards) salary interfere with judicial independence? No one argues that the legislature has threatened to deprive judges of adequate salaries unless they rule in certain ways, or that the failure to raise salaries is payback for some unpopular ruling. The more alarming scenario is one in which judges set their own salaries by adjudicating lawsuits brought by other judges.

The complaint also argues that by refusing to grant cost-of-living increases to judges, while granting them to virtually all other state employees, the political branches have engaged in discrimination. The complaint cites a Supreme Court case that struck down a discriminatory tax that fell on federal judges; here, we have a failure to grant judges cost-of-living raises that were given to others. The argument here is really a Compensation Clause argument that failing to give judges cost-of-living raises is equivalent to reducing their salaries, in violation of that clause, but oddly the argument seems to be that such a failure is a violation only when other state employees do receive cost-of-living raises. I suspect that the plaintiffs presented this argument as a discrimination claim because there is plenty of law already that says failing to raise a salary to keep up with inflation is not the same as reducing a salary; but it doesn't seem like discrimination unless one can show that judges were not already overpaid relative to employees back in 1999, when they were among the best-paid in the nation. And how would one show that?

Eric Posner, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, is author of The Twilight of International Human Rights Law. Follow him on Twitter.

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