November/December 2009

Drive for Judicial Pay Stalls
The Great Recession has generated plenty of downside consequences. For the federal judiciary, the economic downturn has caused efforts to improve federal judicial pay to hit the wall. In the face of a double-digit unemployment rate and cratering savings, it is very difficult for federal judges who earn an annual salary of $170,000 or more—and have lifetime tenure—to argue that they need a pay increase.

Meanwhile, federal judges are continuing to leave the federal bench at an accelerating rate. The number of judges leaving their lifetime federal appointments has increased considerably in recent years—partly because of pay levels. According to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, three judges voluntarily stepped down from the federal bench during the 10-year period between 1958 and 1969. In contrast, between 2000 and 2009, a projected 69 federal judges will have resigned from the bench.

The federal judiciary has begun to realign its compass toward assuring that judges receive at least a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) in 2010, because congressional lawmakers could once again block an automatic COLA for themselves and therefore, by statutory linkage, for judges. With the midterm 2010 elections approaching, the combination of incumbent jitters and the shaky economy could prompt Congress to deny itself a pay raise, and the federal judiciary as well (as was the case five times during the 1990s.) It took considerable effort earlier this year to cause Congress (finally in March) to retroactively authorize a 2.8 percent COLA for federal judges for 2009, even though Congress had already given itself a COLA late last year. 
 
Judicial Caseload Transparency
The Judicial Conference, at its meeting on Sept. 15, voted to increase transparency about judicial caseload productivity by making a judge-specific workload report available for the first time via the Internet at no charge; the online report will be available in spring 2010. The Judicial Conference also approved steps to facilitate courtroom sharing by approving a policy for magistrate judges in new courthouses as well as courtroom construction.

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