Looking to Make Money? Become a Federal Judge

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Senior federal judges can make quite a pretty penny by working as teachers or lecturers at law schools, according to the financial statements that they are required to supply each year. The National Law Journal is featuring an excellent story, to be published next week but available online now, on just how much money is made by senior judges who lecture or teach at top law schools around the country.

The highest earning senior judge this year was Senior Judge Donald Ginsburg, a DC Circuit Court Judge, who took home $277,906 teaching for NYU Law. Another DC Circuit Judge, Senior Judge Harry Edwards, took in just south of $200,000, also from NYU Law. All in all, there were five federal judges who earned at least $100,000 from outside teaching and speaking engagements.

So, what is a senior judge?

A senior judge is a federal judge. In some states, state judges who are quasi-retired are considered senior judges. In order to be a senior judge, a judge must be at least 65, and have served at least 15 years on the bench. That requirement is sliding though, for each year older than 65, they need to have served one year less on the bench. For example, a 67-year-old judge could receive senior status after 13 years of presiding.

Depending on how many cases they choose to take on, senior judges might receive the same salary as an active federal judge. If they take on less, their salary is discounted slightly, but it will never fall below what it was the year they took senior status. So those five senior judges that made $100,000 (or more) are earning that on top of the regular salary they get from being senior judges. Given that a circuit judge now makes roughly $200,000 just for that position, senior judges like Ginsburg and Edwards are doing very, very, well for themselves.

The purpose of this program is that when judges elect to take senior status, they forfeit their seat. They become a kind of “at-large” judge who can float around and take on cases when needed. The vacated seat is filled so that there are more judges to take on heavy caseloads at the federal level. Senior judges can also work with and mentor younger active judges.

Active judges do have requirements about what they can do outside of their judgeship. They are not allowed to make more than $26,955 a year outside of their federal salary — although this does exclude certain ways of earning money, such as royalties from books already published. The purpose behind the rule is to keep active judges, who certainly could be in demand to teach or lecture, focused and prevent them from becoming overworked. However, there is no such requirement for senior judges. 

Senior judges are free to make as much as they desire in their free time, in addition to whatever portion of salary they receive from taking on a case load. Which leads to positions like Ginsburg and Edwards have at NYU Law.

Whether active or senior, that sounds like a decent amount of money to me, especially for a government employee. It is more than what our members of congress get–roughly $175,000 per year. But still, some judges say that it is still much too little. For example, Chief Justice John G. Roberts has made a number of statements saying that we need to pay our judges more. He claims that the salaries have not stayed consistent with the cost of living. In 2007, he actually called the supposedly stagnant pay for judges a “constitutional crisis” in his annual report.

To be fair, judges do make less than their law school classmates who landed partnerships at big law firms. But they still are among the highest paid government employees, they (clearly) can make quite a lot once they reach retirement age, and most importantly, they have lifetime job security. No law firm can boast that kind of awesome financial security.

So if you are thinking about a new dream job, being a senior judge may not be a bad one to add to your list. If you are anything like some of the judges teaching at law schools now, you will be pretty much set for life. Although if that is not quite enough money for you, there is another kind of judgeship to check out: in my research, I found out that Judge Judy makes about $47 million a year, making her the highest paid personality on TV. So either way, go on the judge route and you should be all set!

[National Law Journal]

Anneliese Mahoney (@AMahoney8672) is Lead Editor at Law Street and a Connecticut transplant to Washington D.C. She has a Bachelor’s degree in International Affairs from the George Washington University, and a passion for law, politics, and social issues. Contact Anneliese at

Featured image courtesy of [Martin Bowling via Flickr]

Anneliese Mahoney
Anneliese Mahoney is Managing Editor at Law Street and a Connecticut transplant to Washington D.C. She has a Bachelor’s degree in International Affairs from the George Washington University, and a passion for law, politics, and social issues. Contact Anneliese at



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