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

Former Supreme Court clerks offer behind-the-scenes details.

April 22, 2010, 2:13 PM

WASHINGTON, April 23, 2010— -- 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Associate justices earned $208,100 in 2008, according to the U.S. federal courts. The chief justice made $217,400.

Official salary aside, the most recent court financial disclosures show that the justices are all relatively well off financially. Many also come from wealthy families or are married to high-earning spouses.

Almost all the justices earned thousands of dollars teaching law school courses or judging moot court contests in the United States or abroad in 2008, and a few collected hefty royalties from published books or memoirs.

Many also took all-expenses-paid trips around the world to give speeches, with Justices Stephen Breyer, Anthony Kennedy and Antonin Scalia making dozens of appearances in 2008 alone. While the justices aren't allowed to be paid directly for their speeches under court rules, "they're not flying coach and they're not paying a cent for their travel or accommodations," Powe said.

Back at home, many justices do find ways to live like average Americans, residing in suburban Washington, D.C., homes and partaking in the area's social scene.

Expert say the lack of cameras in the courtroom has helped the justices retain some anonymity in public. A recent C-SPAN poll found many Americans don't know how many justices sit on the bench and most can't identify any by name.

"[Former chief justice, the late William Rhenquist] would often put on a hat and a trench coat and just go strolling around the building," McAllister said. "Tourists would be taking pictures and he'd walk right by."

Thinking Twice About Life on the High Court?

After hours, the justices occasionally partake in public cultural and athletic events.

Scalia and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg frequent the opera, Justice Sonia Sotomayor remains an active salsa dancer and Justice John Paul Stevens has long been an avid golfer. During his free time, Thomas has traveled the country in his motor coach, spending nights on the road at campgrounds and national parks.

Kennedy, known to be one of the most social justices, is a regular on the Washington, D.C., embassy party scene. "He's an A-lister," Powe said.

Yet not everyone is convinced that living out one's days as a member of the high court is worth it – no matter the court's ability to shape U.S. legal thought and exert influence on paramount constitutional conflicts of the day.

"We're kind of doers," former President Bill Clinton said in a recent interview, dismissing the prospect of a Clinton on the high Court. "[Hillary and I] like being out there and doing things, rowing our own boat and making changes we could see happen."

Kansas' McAllister agreed. "People often tell me, 'You ought to go into the federal judiciary,'" he said. "I'm not sure I'd want to, having watched it."