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The U.S. courts’ policy-making body voted last week to curb the number of career law clerks employed by federal judges. Each judge will be limited to one career clerk, a position that, on average, nets a six-figure salary. The cap is projected to save the federal judiciary “tens of millions of dollars” over the next decade, as temporary clerks gain back ground lost to their more experienced and higher-paid peers, Chief Judge Thomas Hogan of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia and chairman of the Judicial Conference’s executive committee, said at a Sept. 18 news conference. A majority of judges from 13 federal appeals courts, the Court of International Trade, and 12 federal district courts approved the rule during the Judicial Conference’s biannual meeting at the U.S. Supreme Court. In May, when word seeped out that the Judicial Conference was considering the rule, many career clerks said they were being unfairly targeted. Their concerns appear to have been trumped by budgetary considerations and a belief shared by Hogan and, apparently, several other judges in the conference, that a glut of career clerks means fewer openings for recent law school graduates, who use the experience to jump-start their careers. “When you have more than one career clerk — at least at the district court level — to my mind, it becomes a culture issue. If we all became career law clerks…there would be no opportunities for the younger clerks,” Hogan said. Those who oppose the rule change, including Judge Consuelo “Connie” Callahan of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in Sacramento, Calif., say swapping career clerks for inexperienced law school graduates will slow justice down and weaken opinions. The career ranks more than doubled in the last decade to 1,514, while the number of temporary or “term” clerks — there are 2,660 — ticked up just 9 percent, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. The term clerks make between $50,000 to $80,000 a year, depending on their level of experience. There are 291 career clerks who work in chambers with another career clerk. On average, they earn $105,000 a year. They will be grandfathered into the new arrangement, Hogan said, but the trend of hiring multiple career clerks is over, effective immediately. Hogan said that in D.C.’s federal court, fewer law school graduates are launching directly into clerkships. Instead, they’re working for a year or two at private firms, and then applying to the courts once they’ve paid off a large chunk of their student loans. The experience affords them a higher salary and they require less training than clerks fresh out of law school. To keep costs down, the Judicial Conference moved to more evenly weigh the salaries of term clerks with firm experience and term clerks who, after completing one clerkship, reach for another, usually in the federal appellate courts, says Dick Corelli, a spokesman for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. In the past, the clerks with private firm experience were paid a higher salary.
Joe Palazzolo can be contacted at [email protected].

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