Why do we care about the net worth of Supreme Court Justices?

Late last week, the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts released the annual financial disclosure reports for the Justices of the Supreme Court. It turns out that the members of the Court are wealthy, with most being millionaires several times over. This is unsurprising. Indeed, it would have been shocking if the Justices — all of whom are Ivy League graduates who enjoyed successful careers before joining the Court, and many of whom are in the late stages of their working life — had not amassed considerable wealth. Yet the news spurred a wide range of stories in the mainstream media and in the blogosphere.

Yes, they’re rich.  Why do we care?

Part of the public’s fascination with the Supreme Court’s wealth comes from general interest in the Supreme Court Justices as public figures.  Even as confidence in government remains low and faith in expertise is in decline, the judiciary remains reasonably well-regarded.  People respect the robe and those who wear it, even when they disagree with individual case results.

Part of the fascination is also attributable to America’s general interest in how much money people earn.  Parade Magazine‘s evergreen cover stories on salaries of everyone from the Hollywood elite to the Midwestern working class are a testament to our interest in what people make.  It is a strikingly American phenomenon that our interest in other people’s salaries is driven less by jealously or class struggle than by the belief that one day, we or our children can enjoy the same wealth and opportunity as A-List movie stars and internet titans.

A final contributor to public interest in judicial salaries may be the concern that wealthy judges cannot truly sympathize with the circumstances of the poor and working class litigants who come before them. A decade’s worth of studies into the judicial mind reveals that judges, like the rest of us, cannot help but see the world through their own experience and upbringing. Can a judge who has always lived a comfortable upper-middle class life really do justice for a litigant or criminal defendant who has experienced poverty, racial profiling, or a broken home?

These are fair concerns, and most judges are no doubt acutely aware of the limits of their own experience. But general legal training and specialized judicial training help emphasize the importance of looking at all circumstances when rendering judgment. And top judges typically rise to their positions in large part because of their ability to bring together intelligence, fealty to the law, empathy, and wisdom. Their salaries are hard-earned, and we can hope and expect that disparities in wealth will not influence their judgment.



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