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In the United States, federal judges are judges who serve on courts established by Article Three of the U.S. Constitution. Often known as "Article III judges", these judges include the chief justice and associate justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, the circuit judges of the U.S. courts of appeals, the district judges of the U.S. district courts, and the judges of the U.S. Court of International Trade.
Unlike the president of the United States and U.S. Senators and Representatives, U.S. federal judges are not elected officials. They are nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate, pursuant to the Appointments Clause of Article Two of the U.S. Constitution. Article Three gives federal judges life tenure, and they hold their seats until they resign, die, or are removed from office by impeachment.
The term "federal judge" generally does not refer to U.S. magistrate judges or the judges of lesser federal tribunals that are not governed by Article III, such as the U.S. bankruptcy courts, the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, the U.S. Tax Court, and other "Article I tribunals". Nor does the term apply to U.S. government agency administrative law judges. These judges are often known as "Article I judges". Although they serve on courts of the U.S. federal government, they do not have life tenure, and their authority derives from Congress via Article I, not independently via Article III.
The primary function of the federal judges is to resolve matters brought before the United States federal courts. Most federal courts in the United States are courts of limited jurisdiction, meaning that they hear only cases for which jurisdiction is authorized by the United States constitution or federal statutes. However, federal district courts are authorized to hear a wide range of civil and criminal cases. District court judges are recognized as having a certain degree of inherent authority to manage the matters before them, ranging from setting the dates for trials and hearings to holding parties in contempt or otherwise sanctioning them for improper behavior. In other circumstances their actions are dictated by federal law, the federal rules of procedure, or "local" rules created by the specific court system itself.
Section 1 of Article Three of the U.S. Constitution provides that federal judges "shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour". This clause has long been interpreted to give federal judges life tenure. Federal judges hold their seats until they resign, die, or are removed from office by impeachment. Although the legal orthodoxy is that judges cannot be removed from office except by Congressional impeachment, several legal scholars, including William Rehnquist, Saikrishna Prakash, and Steven D. Smith, have argued that the Good Behavior Clause may, in theory, permit removal by way of a writ of scire facias filed before a federal court, without resort to impeachment.
As of 2022, federal district judges are paid $223,400 a year, circuit judges $236,900, Associate Justices of the Supreme Court $274,200 and the Chief Justice of the United States $286,700.
Chief Justice John Roberts has repeatedly pleaded for an increase in judicial pay, calling the situation "a constitutional crisis that threatens to undermine the strength and independence of the federal judiciary". The problem is that the most talented associates at the largest U.S. law firms with judicial clerkship experience already earn as much as a federal judge in their first year as full-time associates. When those attorneys eventually become experienced partners and reach the stage in life where one would normally consider switching to public service, their interest in joining the judiciary is tempered by the prospect of a giant pay cut back to what they were making 10 to 20 years earlier (adjusted for inflation). One way for attorneys to soften the financial blow is to spend only a few years on the bench and then return to private practice or go into private arbitration, but such turnover creates a risk of a revolving door judiciary subject to regulatory capture.
Thus, Chief Justice Roberts has warned that "judges are no longer drawn primarily from among the best lawyers in the practicing bar" and "If judicial appointment ceases to be the capstone of a distinguished career and instead becomes a stepping stone to a lucrative position in private practice, the Framers' goal of a truly independent judiciary will be placed in serious jeopardy."
Each federal judge serves at a particular "duty station" for the duration of his or her federal service. This is important because of the relationship among several federal statutes. First, 28 U.S.C. § 456(a) entitles federal judges to reimbursement of transportation and "subsistence" expenses incurred while transacting official business away from their duty stations. Section 456 also prescribes that the District of Columbia is the duty station of all members of the U.S. Supreme Court, the D.C. Circuit, the Federal Circuit, and the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
Second, there are several reasons federal judges need to transact official business outside of their regular courthouse. 28 U.S.C. §§ 291 and 292 authorize a broad variety of temporary reassignments of circuit and district judges, both horizontally (i.e., to other circuits or districts) and vertically (so that a district judge can hear appeals and a circuit judge can try cases). Many federal judges serve on administrative panels like the judicial council for their circuit or the Judicial Conference of the United States. Some of the larger circuit courts like the Ninth Circuit hold regular sessions at multiple locations, and randomly select three-judge panels to hear appeals from all sitting circuit judges regardless of duty station. (Videoconferencing is sometimes now used to reduce the burden of frequent travel on circuit judges.)
The discipline process of federal judges is initiated by the filing of a complaint by any person alleging that a judge has engaged in conduct "prejudicial to the effective and expeditious administration of the business of the courts, or alleging that such judge is unable to discharge all the duties of the office by reason of mental or physical disability." If the chief judge of the circuit does not dismiss the complaint or conclude the proceedings, then they must promptly appoint himself or herself, along with equal numbers of circuit judges and district judges, to a special committee to investigate the facts and allegations in the complaint. The committee must conduct such investigation as it finds necessary and then expeditiously file a comprehensive written report of its investigation with the judicial council of the circuit involved. Upon receipt of such a report, the judicial council of the circuit involved may conduct any additional investigation it deems necessary, and it may dismiss the complaint.
If a judge who is the subject of a complaint holds their office during good behavior, action taken by the judicial council may include certifying disability of the judge. The judicial council may also, in its discretion, refer any complaint under 28 U.S.C. § 351, along with the record of any associated proceedings and its recommendations for appropriate action, to the Judicial Conference of the United States. The Judicial Conference may exercise its authority under the judicial discipline provisions as a conference, or through a standing committee appointed by the chief justice.
Once a judge meets age and service requirements they may retire and will then earn their final salary for the remainder of their life, plus cost-of-living increases. The "Rule of 80" is the commonly used shorthand for the age and service requirement for a judge to retire, or assume senior status, as set forth in Title 28 of the U.S. Code, section 371(c). Beginning at age 65, a judge may retire at their current salary, or take senior status, after performing 15 years of active service as an Article III judge (65 + 15 = 80). A sliding scale of increasing age and decreasing service (66 + 14, 67 + 13, 68 + 12, 69 + 11) results in eligibility for retirement compensation at age 70 with a minimum of 10 years of service (70 + 10 = 80).
Under section 376 a survivor's annuity to benefit the widow, widower or minor child of the judge may be purchased via a deduction of 2.2% to 3.5% from the retirement benefit.
There are currently 870 authorized Article III judgeships: nine on the Supreme Court, 179 on the courts of appeals, 673 for the district courts and nine on the Court of International Trade.
The total number of active federal judges is constantly in flux, for two reasons. First, judges retire or die, and a lapse of time occurs before new judges are appointed to fill those positions. Second, from time to time Congress will increase (or, less frequently, decrease) the number of federal judgeships in a particular judicial district, usually in response to shifting population numbers or a changing workload in that district. Although the number of Supreme Court justices has remained the same for well over a century, the number of court of appeals judges has more than doubled since 1950, and the number of district court judges has increased more than three-fold in that period. In addition, some district court judges serve on more than one court at a time.
Unlike the judges of Article III courts, non-Article III judges are appointed for specified terms of office. Examples include United States magistrate judges and judges of the United States bankruptcy courts, United States Tax Court, United States Court of Federal Claims, and United States territorial courts. Although the term "non-Article III judges" is used to describe the absence of tenure and salary protection, bankruptcy courts are formally designated as divisions of U.S. District Courts, whose district judges are Article III judicial officers. Moreover, in Freytag v. Commissioner, 501 U.S. 868 (1991), the Supreme Court concluded that the judges of the U.S. Tax Court (and their special trial judges) exercise a portion of "the judicial power of the United States."