Federal judges leaving bench for greener pastures

Posted: Tuesday, March 02, 2004

PITTSBURGH U.S. District Judge Robert Cindrich has a lifetime job and could have retired in less than six years with full pay though not a pension of more than $155,000 a year.

But on Feb. 2, the 60-year-old jurist launched a new career as chief legal counsel with a hospital network, joining a record number of federal judges who observers say are retiring or resigning because of lagging pay and stringent guidelines that take away most of their discretion in criminal sentencings.

''We're losing more every year. (Those are) two principal reasons as I see it and they apply to me, too,'' Cindrich said.

There are 877 federal judge positions that are lifetime appointments, from the Supreme Court on down to district courts, and 45 of those seats are vacant, according to the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts. Although a Senate logjam that has kept President Bush from getting his judicial appointees confirmed gets the headlines, observers say a more pressing long-term concern is the rate at which judges are leaving.

From 1991 through February 2002, more than 60 judges either retired or resigned to go into private practice, said Karen Red-mond, spokesperson for the U.S. Courts office, which studied the matter two years ago. Since then, another 10 federal judges have left the bench compared to just five judges who resigned or retired during the entire decade of the 1960s, Redmond said.

A commission chaired by former Federal Reserve Chair Paul Volcker two years ago strongly urged Congress to boost the pay of federal judges, but a resulting bill that would have raised those salaries by 16.5 percent was defeated last session.

The two largest groups of federal judges district and circuit court judges annually make $154,700 and $164,000, respectively. The deans at top U.S. law schools earn more than $300,000, while law professors at those schools make more than $209,000, according to a study cited by the Volcker Commission.

Joe Kendall left his U.S. District Court job in Texas when he was 47 after 10 years on bench. He told The Third Branch, the newsletter for the federal courts system, that with two soon-to-be college-aged children, he couldn't afford not to sell his skills to the private sector.

''If federal judges were paid what an average partner in an average law firm in an average city was paid,'' Kendall said, ''I'd still be on the bench.''

Cindrich earned $133,600 when he was appointed in 1994. His $154,700 salary which has been adjusted for cost of living just five out of his nine years on the bench is worth about $11,000 less in real dollars today.

''Judges are supposed to be relatively smart people so it doesn't take us long to figure out, 'I'm going backward,''' Cindrich said. Added to that are hidden costs.

Federal judges don't get a pension. They can retire after age 65 once they have at least 15 years' service or take senior status and continue to work as long as they carry a caseload equal to 25 percent of those carried by judges on their court. Either way, they continue to receive full pay but because it's not a pension, their dependents lose that income when the judge dies.

''That's one of the reasons a lot of us leave the bench,'' Cindrich said. ''You compensate for it by buying a lot of life insurance.''

Although Cindrich says the job is deeply satisfying, the changing face of federal law is taking its toll on that, too.

Developed in 1986, federal sentencing guidelines were designed so defendants in different areas of the country received similar sentences for similar crimes. But, combined with mandatory minimum sentences heralded as the solution to the ''war on drugs,'' the guidelines too often result in lengthy sentences for what Cindrich calls ''street criminals ... not the big drug runner flying in on jets from South America.''

''When the law provides a result that is repugnant, we must still follow the law,'' Cindrich said. ''And you can only do that so many times before you start to wonder, 'How many more times am I going to put my name on this sentence that I don't believe in?'''

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