Are the incentives for aspiring judges out of whack?


With less than three weeks until the Republican and Democratic primaries, it is becoming clearer than ever that Alabama’s voters need to look a layer deeper at the men and women whose names will be on the ballot June 5th.

If you are running for statewide office, you should expect scrutiny, and there’s been a fair amount of that. It’s easy to pick on the top of the ballot races. But the down ballot and local candidates often fly under the radar.

Like most Alabamians, I am sick and tired of our elected officials not being held to the same standard of accountability as the rest of us. Sometimes it’s a case of bad apples, but other times elected officials are simply reacting to the set of incentives they’re presented with.

The most glaring example of incentive structures not matching up with what’s in Alabama’s best interest may be our judicial retirement system.

While serving in the State of Alabama, judges are required to contribute 8.5 percent of their salary to the Judicial Retirement Fund (JRF), but the state matches four times that much by putting in 35.24 percent.

At retirement a former judge, who we must remember is an elected official, can collect up to 75 percent of his or her salary as long as they live. With salaries averaging in the mid six-figures, that’s a pretty penny for the Alabama taxpayers who foot the bill.

That’s a pretty sweet gig already. But it gets even better.

A 60 year old lawyer looking to maximize his retirement can run for office, and if he stays in office for only 10 years he is entitled to benefits under the law. We “age out” our judges and bar them from running again after age 70.

Do you know anyone else who has this kind of generous retirement virtually guaranteed? Certainly not in the private sector.  

Defenders of these types of programs often say that it takes promises of a high salary and benefits to lure the best lawyers away from practice, but I believe we should look at it from a different perspective.

Public service shouldn’t be lucrative. It shouldn’t be a way to pad your pockets or gain notoriety. And it certainly shouldn’t be a fall back plan for those who couldn’t cut it in the private sector.

When considering who we cast our ballots for in a few weeks, I hope others will join me in voting for the candidates who are choosing to be servant leaders.

No matter where you are in the state, judges are an underappreciated part of the system. Whether or not you have a direct interaction with the legal system, the judicial branch may have more day-to-day impact on our lives than any other elected officials. 

We need high quality judges who are invested in our communities, who care about justice and the rule of law, and who are running for the right reasons–not because it’s an easy way to get a cushy retirement.

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