To The Readers Of The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel:
In the November issue of The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel, I addressed the inequities triggered by the enforcement of the Mandatory Sentencing Guidelines. Based upon readers' feedback, it appears that many fail to understand what the phrase "judicial independence" truly means and why the concept is of utmost importance. Ideally, judges should be free to render decisions, particularly controversial and unpopular ones, without undue influence, threats or the fear of reprisals.
Absent such independence, the very integrity of our democracy is at risk. Indeed, it is an independent judiciary that sets our system apart from others and protects our precious civil liberties and personal freedoms. We, as members of the organized bar, have been entrusted with safeguarding this independence, for when judges are unfairly attacked in the media, it is we who are, and must be, the voice of reason. When judges are concerned about media criticism, or distracted by the impact a decision might have on re-election or reappointment, our precious democracy suffers immeasurably.
And, in order to function effectively, a judge must also have economic independence. Yet, judicial salaries have not been properly reviewed and adjusted despite the extraordinary gains in the private sector over the past several decades. In the 1960s, a Federal District Court Judge earned approximately $35,000 per year, while first-year associates at elite law firms earned approximately $6,000 per year. Private sector salaries have risen so dramatically that some associates now earn more than United States Supreme Court Justices.
Many judges are experienced lawyers who perform a vital function in advancing the rule of law and protecting our civil liberties. Jurists are invaluable resources and we should compensate them appropriately. Instead, they are given no assurance of salary stability, let alone periodic raises. Such a disparity seriously threatens judicial independence by discouraging judges from remaining on the bench.
Our judiciary's independence is compromised when its members need to petition the legislative and executive branches of our government to obtain a well-deserved cost-of-living adjustment. Inadequate judicial salaries also threaten the diversity of the bench by constricting the pool of those willing to be considered for judicial office. Since the 1980s, an increasingly larger proportion of the judiciary has come from the public sector. Judicial pay may not be a deterrent to individuals who are independently wealthy or who are already in public service, where salaries are generally lower, but it is a strong disincentive for lawyers in private practice whose varied experiences bring a vital and unique perspective to their work.
NYCLA has been, and will remain, a strong advocate for the judiciary. This commitment is reinforced by our active involvement in the Joint Committee on the Independence of the Judiciary, a coalition of bar associations and law school deans that speaks out when judges are subject to unwarranted attacks by public officials or the media.
Let us not forget that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty and that the blessing of liberty is built upon the foundation of judicial independence. NYCLA is dedicated to keeping that foundation forever strong.