November/December 2007: Senate and House Mull Action on Judicial Pay Raise

Washington Watch | November/December 2007
By Bruce Moyer

Bills have been introduced in the Senate and the House of Representatives to give federal judges a significant pay raise and install a fairer process for ensuring future annual increases. Supporters of the judicial pay raise measures are optimistic that Congress will approve a pay raise measure before the end of the year, possibly tucked within a larger bill headed for the legislative finish line. 

Key Democratic and Republican leaders in both chambers have thrown their support behind improving judicial compensation. President Bush also has expressed support for a significant pay raise for judges. The Federal Bar Association  has actively joined the campaign, along with other legal, business, and environmental groups. Many FBA chapters have written letters  to their lawmakers, urging them to become  co-sponsors of the Senate and House measures.

The Senate bill, S. 1638, introduced in June by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman  Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), would provide a 50 percent boost to federal judicial salaries. The bill would raise the annual salary of district judges to $247,800, the salaries of appellate judges to $262,700, and the salaries of Supreme Court justices and the Chief Justice to $304,500 and $318,200, respectively. Sen. Leahy was originally joined in co-sponsoring the  legislation by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Ranking Judiciary Committee Member Sen. Orrin  Hatch (R-Utah), Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). By mid-October, additional co-sponsors included Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah), Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D N.M.), Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), Sen. Edward Kennedy  (D-Mass.), Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), and Sen. John Warner  (R-Va.).

In early October, John Conyers (D-Mich.), chairman  of the House Judiciary Committee, introduced an alternative measure for raising judicial pay, H.R. 3753. This bill would raise the salaries of federal judges by approximately 44 percent, elevating the salary of district  judges to $233,500, appellate judges to $247,500, associate Supreme Court justices to $286,900, and the salary of the Chief Justice to $299,800. Original co-sponsors of the measure included Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.), Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), Rep. Mel Watt (D N.C.), Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.), Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), Rep. Judy Biggert (R-Ill.), Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), and Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas).

The issue of judicial salaries appears to finally have gotten traction on Capitol Hill, fed by increasing concern  over the skyrocketing number of departures of judges from the federal bench. More than 40 federal judges have stepped down in the last five years, many citing pay as a principal reason for their departure. Resignations once were rare because few judges gave up the lifetime posts. Between 1958 and 1969, only three judges left the federal bench, but since 2000, there have been 51 departures.

Since 1993, Congress has denied six cost-of-living increases for federal judges—increases provided for under the Ethics Reform Act of 1989. As a consequence, a district judge on the bench since 1993 failed to receive  a total of $208,500 in statutorily authorized—but denied—pay. Appellate judges have lost even more.

Salaries in the public and private sectors have continued  to move ahead, but the salaries of federal judges  have failed to keep up even with inflation. Since 1969, the salaries of federal judges have fallen well behind those of the American labor force relative to the cost of living. Over the past 18 years, the national average for all wages rose by 18.5 percent, whereas, when adjusted for inflation, a judge’s pay declined by nearly 25 percent.

Members of Congress make the same pay as district  judges do, and salary adjustments of federal judges  and members of Congress since 1981 have been linked. This linkage of judicial and congressional salaries,  in fact, has represented one of the major reasons why judicial pay has fallen behind. Few members of Congress, especially in election years, are willing to support pay increases for judges, because their own pay would also go up, likely triggering voter backlash. Fortunately, both the Senate and House bills would separate judicial pay from congressional pay—a brave and necessary step toward reforming judicial compensation.

Bruce Moyer is government relations counsel for the FBA.
© 2007 Bruce Moyer. All rights reserved.

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