Minnesota state judges leave bench for other careers

Salary issues, stress and recent retirements create high turnover.

Rebecca Bentz

Low pay, stressful conditions and the retirement of many baby boomer judges contributed to a high turnover rate in federal and state judiciaries this year.

Since 1993 federal district and circuit judges’ inflation-adjusted salaries decreased about 12 percent, which could be a major factor in turnover, according to the Wall Street Journal.

In Minnesota, state district judges earn about $121,712 on average, while Minnesota Supreme Court associate justices earn an average of $137,601, according to state records. In comparison, a first-year law firm associate in the Twin Cities can earn up to $120,000, according to the National Association for Law Placement directory.

“We don’t make that much money,” Minnesota’s 4th District Chief Judge Lucy Wieland said. “As judges are approaching 60 years old, many of them are saying, ‘you know, I could make a lot more money if I go off and do something different.’ “

University law professor David Stras said the high judiciary turnover might reflect the evolution of American culture.

“As a whole our society has become a lot more mobile,” Stras said. “People, including judges, are willing to not spend their entire lives in one location, and try different things with their time.”

In May 2006, J. Michael Luttig, a former federal appeals court judge, left his lifetime appointment on the bench for a position at Boeing Co. Luttig cited his salary as reason for leaving his judgeship.

Luttig has a 15-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son and wanted to make sure he could pay for their college education, his friends told the Washington Post.

But salary issues aren’t the only motivator for career-swapping judges.

“The job has also gotten harder,” Wieland said.

“In this state, our judges have much higher case loads than judges in other states. And for some people, when you look at the whole package – you’re working really hard, you’re not making much money – there’s a burn out factor. It’s a stressful job.”

But many judges swap careers simply for a change of pace.

The number of state judges in Minnesota increased in the 1980s, Wieland said. Because of the number of open positions many younger law professionals became judges. Those hired in their 30s or 40s are now in their late 50s or early 60s. Many of them might want to leave the bench, but they don’t want to stop working, she said.

Minnesota First Lady Mary Pawlenty left her position as a district court judge in January. After 12 years on the bench, Pawlenty wanted to start a new chapter in her career, she said in a statement. The First Lady is now General Counsel for the National Arbitration Forum.

Also leaving the bench is Hennepin County District Judge Robert Lynn. He said he loves his career as a judge, but plans to retire in April.

Lynn said he plans to start his own business doing mediations, arbitrations and private judging on civil matters.

“Since I was 15 I’ve worked and it’s always been for someone else. So now I’d like to be my own boss,” Lynn said.