'Cushy' Job, or 'Isolated' Hell? Life as a Supreme Court Justice

When President Obama picks his nominee to become the nation's 112th Supreme Court justice, he'll bestow one of the highest honors a U.S. lawyer or judge can receive. But appointment to a seat on the country's highest court can be both a blessing and a curse, court insiders say.

In many ways, "it's the cushiest job in the world," said Supreme Court historian and University of Texas law professor Lucas "Scot" Powe.

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Court members get lifetime employment, steady $200,000 salaries, ample vacation and comprehensive health benefits.

"There's also not that much required work, and they've made it less over time," said Powe, who clerked for Justice William O. Douglas in the early 1970s.

Clerks themselves do much of the administrative legwork for the justices, sorting through the thousands of petitions the court receives and summarizing them in short memos. They also help the justices craft their written opinions on selected cases.

Thirty years ago, the court issued roughly 120 decisions in a given term. It issued 83 in the 2008-2009 session.

Obama's Supreme Court Short List

The court's nine-month term also means abundant free time during the summer, when justices don't hear oral arguments or meet to decide cases. Many choose to travel the world, giving legal seminars in hot spots like Venice, Italy, or Salzburg, Austria.

"You don't even have to deal with the public," said Stephen McAllister, a University of Kansas law professor who clerked for Justice Byron White from 1989 to 1991 and then for Justice Clarence Thomas during the 1991-1992 term.

Members of the court don't have to answer to constituents, raise money for campaigns or respond to pressing threats to the country's physical or economic security.

Sonia Sotomayor
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Justice David Souter, now retired, would often summer at his cabin in rural New Hampshire, free from e-mail, voicemail or cell phones.

But despite the apparent perks, Supreme Court service is often a lonely and frustrating path for those who take it.

"It's a very isolated existence," McAllister said, "and it really means a withdrawal from much of the real world."

Some experts have likened a role on the court to working for the CIA, with pressure to avoid public statements about the work or actions that could compromise the appearance of impartiality.

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Justices Well Off Financially, Travel the World

The isolation even exists inside the court, where the justices work largely alone, holed up inside chambers often characterized as independent law firms, silently reading and drafting documents.

"There's not a lot of collaborating, not a lot of just going down to somebody's chambers for awhile to chat about things," McAllister said. "There's not much of any contact at all among them [the justices]."

Another downside, expert say, is the justices' annual pay, which hasn't kept pace with inflation over the years and pales in comparison to what a lawyer of similar experience and stature might earn at a private firm. Partners at the top 42 U.S. firms earned more than million dollars each in 2008, according to the trade publication American Lawyer.

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