Lifetime tenure maximizes judicial independence by shielding judges from political pressures, but it creates problems of its own. Judges with independence may implement their political preferences. Judges may remain in office after their abilities degrade with age. The U.S. federal system addresses these problems in an indirect way. When judges’ pensions vest, they receive a full salary regardless of whether they work. Judges can retire, receive their pension, and obtain paying work elsewhere. This limits some of the harmful effects of judicial independence by encouraging judges to vacate their offices when they become old, and by causing judges who lack talent, and therefore find their work burdensome, to leave office. We test the benefits and costs of this system using a database of federal district judges. We find that the vesting system causes judges to retire as expected, but that higher-quality and wealthier judges are less sensitive to the financial incentives of the system; and that some judges appear to time retirement so that the president will appoint likeminded judges. 




Stephen J. Choi, G. Mitu Gulati & Eric A. Posner, The Law and Policy of Judicial Retirement: An Empirical Study, 42 Journal of Legal Studies, 111–150 (2013).