Judicial Compensation and the Definition of Judicial Power in the Early Republic
Article III’s provision for the compensation of federal judges has been much celebrated for the no-diminution provision that forecloses judicial pay cuts. But other features of Article Ill’s compensation provision have largely escaped notice. In particular, little attention has been paid to the framers’ apparent expectation that Congress would compensate federal judges with salaries alone, payable from the treasury at stated times. Article III’s presumption in favor of salary-based compensation may rule out fee-based compensation, which was a common form of judicial compensation in England and the colonies but had grown controversial by the time of the framing. Among other problems, fee-paid judges were understood to have a financial interest in expanding their jurisdiction. By placing federal judges on salary, Article III may have provided subtle institutional support for the notion that federal courts were to be courts of limited jurisdiction. This Article explores the role of judicial compensation in shaping the familiar jurisdictional landmarks of the early Republic. It shows that Congress chose a salary-based compensation scheme, and took early steps to rule out fee payments to federal judges. The Article also demonstrates that the judicial salary was understood to include compensation for official travel, a fact that sheds important new light on the Supreme Court Justices’ hostility to the burdens, and expense, of riding the circuit. The Article suggests that financial self-interest may have played a role in shaping the early definition of judicial power and the willingness of the Justices to take on extrajudicial assignments. Such familiar episodes in the historiography of the early Republic as the refusal of the circuit courts to hear pension claims, the Court’s refusal to issue advisory opinions, the paradoxical willingness of Chief Justice Jay to accept a position as ambassador to Great Britain, and the Court’s complex response in Marbury v. Madison to the repeal and reestablishment of circuit duties all take on new meaning when viewed against the backdrop of financial self-interest. Concluding remarks focus on judicial independence and the way Article III frames debate over judicial compensation and workload.