July 05, 2002
They are getting younger all the time

Interesting Chron story today about how state judges in Texas have gotten a lot younger on average over the past two decades. The accompanying graph really shows the trend in recent years. Factors involved in this are pay and a change in the pension rules, coupled with electoral uncertainty.

But the Texas Legislature amended the judicial pension requirements in 1985, diminishing the economic incentive to become a judge and remain one. Before the legislative change, judges could begin earning a pension after serving 12 years on the bench or after eight years if the judge had prior military service.

Now, judges must serve 20 years on the bench to qualify for a pension. Because of financial and political uncertainty, many judges do not stay on the job that long anymore.

Serving 20 years means at least five elections. While I don't think enough incumbent judges get ousted to really make "political uncertainty" a strong reason for this trend, I can certainly understand more people not wanting to be locked into something for that long. And let's face it, raising money and campaigning all those times has to get old.

Judges say money is often a factor in determining whether a lawyer runs for or stays with a judgeship, considering the lucrative urban market for top-notch lawyers.

A first-year associate at one of Houston's prestigious firms can earn an average of $150,000 annually, lawyers and judges said.

The average state district judicial salary is about $114,000, although county-court-at-law salaries, tied to more county benefits, average about $122,000.

"Clearly if the Legislature wants judges to spend more than a few years on the bench, it will have to pay judges at least what top-notch, first-year lawyers make," [state District Judge Mark] Davidson said.

"How much can you ask of children to sacrifice their education because you want to do public service as a judge?"

While it's often hard to empathize with someone who makes $120K per year (I sure wish I made that kind of lettuce, and I'm far from underpaid), it's also hard to argue that nobility is worth $30K or more per year. And there's nothing quite so special as having your salary be captive to a state legislature, as my dad can attest from his 14 years on the state bench in New York.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on July 05, 2002 to The great state of Texas