George Hazel and Gregg Costa had yet to turn 40 when former President Barack Obama nominated the lawyers to become federal judges.
The appointments—Hazel to a federal court in Maryland and Costa in Texas—were part of an emerging trend, as the Obama administration looked to tap younger judges for lifetime roles that could secure their seats for a generation. Roughly a decade later, Hazel and Costa opted for another path: they recently left their roles for lucrative partnerships at elite law firm Gibson Dunn & Crutcher.
Hazel, now a 47-year-old father of two, said he was ready for another act as a lawyer, not to mention the pay boost that comes with it. Gibson Dunn reported more than $4.4 million in profits per equity partner last year.
“When you get on the bench at 51, depending on your career path maybe you’ve had the time to bank away some money,” said Hazel, who joined Gibson Dunn this month. But the shift toward appointing younger judges, continued in the Trump and Biden administration, “is definitely going to make it more likely that people might consider something else,” he added.
Hazel and Costa, now 50, are among five Obama appointees who since August have resigned or announced their intent to leave the bench. All five judges joined their courts at 45 or younger, highlighting a potential downside to the youth movement.
The Biden White House didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Donald Trump’s imprint on the federal judiciary may be among the former president’s most lasting accomplishments.
Trump placed three justices on the US Supreme Court and more than 200 in other federal judgeships across the country. He also continued the shift toward younger nominees, with an average age of 48 for federal appeals court picks, according to ProPublica.
The Biden administration has “more or less” continued to prioritize youth, said Xiao Wang, a Northwestern University law professor, in addition to looking for judges from underrepresented sociocultural and professional backgrounds.
Examples include Brad Garcia, an under-40 lawyer whose nomination on the federal district court in D.C. is pending, and Arianna Freeman, who was in her early 40s when she was confirmed for a seat on the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.
It remains rare for judges to resign before reaching senior status or retirement eligibility, which starts at age 65 and depends on tenure. Still, those appointed at the younger end of the spectrum have historically been more likely to step down early.
Since the Nixon administration, a “significant majority” of the 80 judges who resigned were appointed under the age of 45, according to a July study from the Vetting Room, a legal blog.
Many have exited early for jobs in the private sector, academia or another branch of government. Former New York federal judge John Gleeson is among the notable examples. The liberal jurist, who was appointed in his early 40s by President Bill Clinton, resigned in 2016 to join Wall Street law firm Debevoise & Plimpton.
Four judges made early exits in recent months, taking jobs at Big Law firms.
In August, Costa and Northern District of Alabama Judge Abdul Kallon stepped down from the bench.
Costa, who had been a district judge before being elevated to the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, now helps lead Gibson Dunn’s trial practice. Kallon, 53, left after 13 years and subsequently joined Perkins Coie in the firm’s Seattle office.
Northern District of Illinois Judge Gary Feinerman, who was appointed at 45, left in December to join Latham & Watkins. Hazel left his Maryland federal court seat in February before joining Gibson Dunn.
Paul Watford, who sits on the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and was first appointed at age 44, is set to resign May 31. Once considered a possible Supreme Court pick, Watford has reportedly said he anticipates returning to private practice.
Hazel, Costa, and Feinerman said in separate interviews that they ditched their black robes because they wanted to be lawyers again.
“Sometimes I’m on the bench reffing the game and wishing I had the ball in my hands,” said Hazel. “To do that when I’m still at an age where I have the drive, it just seemed like the right opportunity.”
Hazel acknowledged he’d be “pretending” if he said the pay bump didn’t also play a role.
“You don’t want to limit the job to people who are coming from wealth, but the reality of my situation is I’ve been in public service for about 18 years,” said Hazel, a former prosecutor. “I get to 47, I’m thinking about what my market value could be. I don’t come from generational wealth.”
Federal district judges will make just under $233,000 this year, while appeals judges will make more than $246,000, according to the US Courts website.
At major law firms like Gibson Dunn and Latham & Watkins, first-year associates—typically fresh out of law school—now command as much as $235,000 in salaries and bonuses. Equity partner profits have in recent years surpassed $4 million on average at those and other firms.
“Any firm would love to have a former federal judge on their roster, because they come with deep knowledge about how the courts work (and it makes for great marketing to clients),” John P. Collins, a visiting associate law professor at George Washington University, said in an email. “There’s a huge opportunity cost to staying on the bench.”
The current political climate is a possible factor in the recent wave of Obama appointees heading for the exits.
Judges are increasingly timing their decisions in a politically strategic manner, according to Wang, who has studied historical trends in jurists taking senior status, a form of semi-retirement. By leaving while Biden is in the White House, for example, Obama appointed judges open up seats to be filled by a Democratic administration.
Some liberal leaning judges may also be nudged by the increasingly conservative direction of the Supreme Court, said Collins.
“The conservative supermajority on the court is not waiting around to flex its muscle and reshape the law in its own view, and that may not sit well with everyone,” he said. “As lower court judges, they are bound to follow the Supreme Court’s precedent and, if they don’t like where that precedent is going (or, more likely, the method by which it is getting there), the job of judging may no longer hold the appeal it once did.”
Before stepping down, Costa told Bloomberg Law that he fears courts are becoming “increasingly politicized, and there’s a sense—at least outside the courts—that judges are on teams.”
Some younger judges may also be more compelled to move because the role is not viewed as a career capstone, said Merritt McAlister, a University of Florida law professor and former King & Spalding partner.
“Judges are humans too,” she said. “Judges are motivated by the same things that motivate the rest of us and we’re seeing that play out.”
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