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What is a Senior Judge?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 11 November 2016
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In the United States, a senior judge is a judge in the federal or sometimes state court system who is officially retired, but still performs some services for the court. Senior judges carry a caseload, although it is much smaller than that of judges who are currently serving, and they also complete administrative tasks related to the court. In return, they receive full pay. Judges can also choose to fully retire, drawing retirement benefits and not performing any services for the court.

A judge becomes eligible for senior judge status at age 65 and after having completed at least 15 years of service to the court. As judges grow older, the service requirement drops for each year of age, a policy known as the “rule of 80” because the judge's combined age and service requirement will add up to 80. A 71 year old judge, for example, needs to have completed nine years of service to become a senior judge.

Senior judges can cut their workload by as much as three quarters, carrying the number of cases an active, working judge would normally take in three months. Many have clerks and other office personnel to assist them. The judge's position on the court is officially vacant and a replacement may be appointed, allowing the court to move a full-time judge into place. If the senior judge decides to retire fully after time in semi-retirement, the judge will be eligible for retirement benefits and will not serve in the court.

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Many federal and state courts in the United States are struggling with a large backlog of cases, especially in very busy districts. Allowing people with extensive judicial experience to enter semi-retirement when they are ready to stop working full time helps to clear this caseload. Senior judges can take on cases to help clear the court's schedule more quickly, while also lending their experience to the court. If all highly experienced judges stepped down from the bench entirely when they retired, there would be more lags in the system as replacements were appointed and the court struggled to balance a busy schedule.

The system allowing people to serve as senior judges has been questioned by some people. The constitutionality of the senior judge status is a topic of debate and some critics suggest that more clarification is needed on this unique role in the legal system and that possibly, judges should not be allowed to step down to semi-retirement status when they no longer work full time. For Supreme Court justices, the decision is usually made to retire fully, rather than taking a position as a senior judge.

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