Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The “public service” mantra

I try to remain ignorant about local politics, happenings, goings on, news, and events of every kind.  Normally, this is easily accomplished by substituting a national newspaper for the local rag.  But despite my modest efforts, I’ve been subjected to a lot of chatter recently about who is going to be running for Kenosha circuit court judge when one of the sitting judges retires.  And when election time rolls around – actually, I suspect that it’s always election time for those with a political bent – the voters will be hearing a lot of talk about why the candidates want the job.  I can predict that every candidate’s answer will be that he or she wants the job to “serve the public,” or “serve the community,” or some variation of that phrase.  My advice to the voters: don’t buy it.  Most (if not all) candidates want the job for the huge pay raise that comes with it.  Let’s take a look at the numbers:

$52,627 – median Wisconsin household income

$55,117 – median Kenosha household income

$76,875 – median Kenosha attorney salary

$113,530 – median attorney salary nationally

Actually, the salary numbers for attorneys nationally are interesting due to the bimodal salary distribution, but that's really a story for another post.  More to the point: where do Wisconsin circuit court judges fall?  For their service to the public do they get paid the median Kenosha household income, where, typically, more than one person holds one or more jobs each?   Or do they get the median Kenosha attorney salary?  That would seem a little bit too high, as the would-be jurists claim to be driven by their desire to do good, not rake in money.  And surely, there’s no way these selfless candidates are gunning for a salary as high as the national median for attorneys, is there?  After all, this national number includes partners who work 60 or 70 hours per week at mega firms in New York, Chicago, and LA.  “Public service” couldn’t possible pay that much, could it?  Yes, it could, and then some:

$128,600Wisconsin circuit court judge salary

And don’t forget about the taxpayer-funded pension, health insurance, paid vacation, flexible hours, and all of the other benefits.  Public service, indeed.

I don’t begrudge anyone their salary, even when it seems to be immune to market forces (as is the case here), and even when market forces drive it to unfathomable heights (as is the case with some athletes – though there is evidence that one of the highest earners, Lebron James, is actually grossly underpaid).  But, as a lawyer, I would much rather the candidates impress me with their legal knowledge and tell me exactly why they’d be good at the job, instead of trying to convince me of their altruistic motives for seeking the job.  Hopefully, when election time rolls around, the voters will want the same. 

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