03 Apr Here Comes The Judge!
Bankruptcy judges are unusual creatures in the law. If you file bankruptcy, you often never actually come face-to-face with your judge. In many cases, even your attorney might not have to appear before the judge formally. Yet the judge is ultimately the one who makes everything in bankruptcy happen.
Bankruptcy court judgeships are created by Congress under Article I of the United States Constitution. So they are federal judges. But since they are not created under Article III which established the federal judiciary like the U.S. Supreme Court, bankruptcy judges are not appointed for life. Instead, they are appointed for 14-year terms. And they are appointed by the judges of the Circuit Court of Appeals which oversees the particular district.
The bankruptcy judges in each federal district will typically hear all matters that are integral to the bankruptcy process. Even if they were not experienced in bankruptcy prior to being appointed, they rapidly become experts in the process since their entire working day is devoted to bankruptcy. So the result is a specialized judge in a specialized court system devoted exclusively to this singular area of law.
Bankruptcy judges are paid 92% of a district court judge’s salary, which works out to about $150,000 per year. Although this is a magnificent sum for the typical consumer, we should keep in mind that the starting salaries for new attorneys in New York law firms is over $160,000 and the average partner salary exceeds $500,000. So serving on the bench for experienced bankruptcy judges typically means sacrificing hundreds of thousands of dollars of potential income in the private sector.
For lawyers who typically practice where the judges hear all variety of legal disputes on any given day, ranging from divorce, to criminal charges, to landlord-tenant and contract disputes, it can be a wake-up call to appear in bankruptcy court. Rather than needing to “educate” the judge about issues because most judges simply cannot be all-knowing on every area of law they may have to address, you can often find yourself being educated by the judge who lives and breathes nothing else.
The specialized bankruptcy court and judge system has been a remarkable success in the United States. Despite a massive increase in the numbers of cases pouring through the system, the total number of judges has barely increased nationally (although many judges volunteered to step-in as visiting judges in other districts and retired judges have stayed on as senior judges to help out) and the cases are virtually always proceeding through the system at paces that other court systems can only envy.
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