January 01, 2012

From the Bench: A Judge Hangs Up Her Robes

A former judge argues that the country is losing qualified judges because we don't pay them enough to keep them on the bench.

Nancy Gertner

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I retired from the federal bench on August 31, 2011, to join the faculty at the Harvard Law School. I did so for many reasons. At 65, I wanted a new adventure. I had been a litigator for 24 years and a judge for 17, and, for the next phase of my life, I wanted different challenges. (The organization Civic Ventures refers to this as an “encore career.”) I wanted to write—in particular, to write about the real experience of being a judge, an experience that looks nothing like the television parody or the tabloid’s empty “activist” debate. I wanted to reflect on the extraordinary perch I have had for nearly two decades, especially for a lay audience. I also wanted to speak more freely than judges are permitted to do. I had just published a memoir about my years in law practice (In Defense of Women, Beacon Press, 2011); I had more books to complete and a publisher anxious to publish them. I had combined law school teaching and practice from the beginning of my career. Now I looked forward to full-time teaching and felt particularly welcomed to the Harvard Law School faculty.

But there was an additional motivation, which I describe with considerable reluctance; I also left the bench for financial reasons. In effect, my financial concerns were a necessary but not a sufficient reason for leaving. If the other factors had not been aligned, I may not have retired. I had children late in life; the period of my judging coincided with sending my two youngest (of three) to college. By the time my husband and I finished paying tuition, and watched as whatever we had left fell in the December 2008 financial crash, 17 years as a judge had taken a substantial financial toll on our family.

To be sure, our situation does not remotely compare to that of the many citizens who are suffering, jobless and without prospects. It does not compare to the situation of those who are barely surviving with multiple jobs, one paycheck away from bankruptcy. It also does not compare to the perilous situation of state judges whose already paltry salaries are frozen as they are forced to preside over courts in deteriorating buildings with little staff.

I was lucky enough to have career options, and so long as I did, I would exercise them. Indeed, that is the point of this essay.


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