A soon-to-be-published study of federal judicial retirement, “Leaving the Bench, 1970-2009: The Choices Federal Judges Make, What Influences Those Choices, and Their Consequences,” warns that federal judicial pay stagnation may prompt a growing number of federal judges to leave the bench upon reaching retirement age rather than continue to serve in senior status. The study's authors, University of Pennsylvania Law School Professor Stephen B. Burbank, Circuit Judge S. Jay Plager of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, and Gregory Ablavsky, calculate that it would take an additional 170 authorized judgeships (147 at the district court level and 23 at the circuit level) to provide the judicial work currently being shouldered by judges in senior status, who conducted 26% of all federal trials in 2009 and also provided other judicial and essential administrative service.
Among the study’s key findings:
- Although resignations have been historically low in recent decades, judges appointed at younger ages are the ones most likely to resign, and they may also be more likely to retire, rather than assume senior status, when they are eligible.
- The desire to help the judge’s court by creating a vacancy and the desire to take advantage of federal (FICA) tax advantages are the strongest influences on decisions to assume senior status. The desire for more income and seeking new challenges are the primary drivers of judicial retirements.
- Contrary to much of the political science literature, strategic partisan behavior plays little role in decisions to assume senior status or retire.
- Judges in senior status voice substantial unhappiness about Congress’s failure to grant a salary increase since 1991 and the lack of annual cost-of-living adjustments.
The paper is reviewed here, at Jotwell.