Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility
Home / News / Commentary / It’s time to raise judicial pay in North Carolina 

It’s time to raise judicial pay in North Carolina 

When it comes to judicial pay, North Carolina has fallen far behind.  

According to a recent report from the National Center for State Courts, North Carolina ranks 47th in the nation for salaries for the state’s highest court. Here, the current pay for an associate justice is $167,807. In neighboring South Carolina? It’s $213,321. In Tennessee, it’s $208,704. 

In case you’re wondering, things aren’t rosier at the Court of Appeals. At the intermediate appellate level, we rank 38th. If that sounds better, know that there are only 41 states with intermediate appellate courts.  

Questions about judicial pay are nothing new. Debates about judicial pay at the nation’s founding led to the compensation clause in article III of the federal constitution. That clause prevents Congress from decreasing a federal judge’s pay while in office.  

And throughout the nation’s history, there have been calls for raising judicial pay, especially at the federal level. Those calls haven’t dissipated. In an annual report to Congress, Chief Justice John Roberts explained that the judiciary can’t serve its role if it’s either restricted to the wealthy, who can be indifferent to compensation, or to those who receive a raise when becoming a judge. There are fine judges in both categories, but the nation–and this state–shouldn’t depend on such a narrow pool of talent.  

Don’t get me wrong: it’s possible to overpay. Plato worried about that over 2,000 years ago, warning that the government shouldn’t entice the greedy to seek public office. But at current salaries, that’s a distant concern.  

And there’s nothing inherently wrong with paying judges less than they’d make in private practice. But there is something wrong with paying judges less than a first-year associate. Back in 2021, the national, median salary for first year associates in private practice was $165,000. And that’s not even including bonuses. There’s no reason for a first-year associate and the Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court to receive the same pay.  

We do ourselves a disservice by keeping judicial pay so low. When the gap between a judicial salary and an attorney’s next best alternative is too great, we lose out on the best legal minds our state has to offer.  

Although the current salaries may seem substantial compared to the average worker’s salary in North Carolina, many attorneys leaving private practice for a judgeship would need to radically change the lives of their families. Younger judges, who are still providing for their children, are especially susceptible to the burdens of low pay. Many attorneys aren’t willing to put their families through that, even if they’re personally interested and willing to join the bench. Some judges have resigned when they’ve felt the burden on their families become too much, especially given the costs of education.  

This isn’t to say that salaries for our trial court judges necessarily need raising. At the trial level, things are more complicated because the cost of living varies so much across the state.  

By contrast, all our appellate judges keep chambers in Raleigh, and most of them reside in Raleigh permanently. So it’s fair to tie the salaries for all our appellate judges to Wake County metrics, which are at the high end for the state.  

This isn’t a radically expensive proposal. At the appellate level, we’re talking about the salaries of just twenty-two people. Give them all a 20% raise–let them have a salary that starts with a 2–and it will only add about $700,000 to the budget. That’s a small sum for appellate judges whose rulings determine the law for the entire state. 

Ultimately, it’s not asking too much for North Carolina to pay our judges a salary that reflects their importance to our democracy. They’re doing hard, often thankless work. Let’s pay them for it. 

Troy Shelton is an appellate partner in Raleigh at Fox Rothschild LLP. He partners with trial attorneys to win on appeal in state and federal courts.  

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *