March/April 2008: A Pay Raise for Judges Gets Closer

Washington Watch | March/April 2008
By Bruce Moyer

The Federal Bar Association has actively urged Congress to provide a significant salary increase to federal judges since 2001. The raise would help to preserve judicial independence and erase the deep erosion in the judges' salaries, which has widened over the past two decades because of the failure of Congress to ensure that judicial pay keeps pace with inflation.

Over the past year, FBA has stepped up its judicial pay reform efforts and has collaborated with other legal, environmental, and consumer groups in support of bipartisan House and Senate bills to restore judicial pay to its rightful level. These advocacy efforts, involving numerous FBA chapters and members, have brought the campaign for judicial pay reform closer to success than ever.

In late January, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved legislation (an amended version of the Federal Judicial Salary Restoration Act, S. 1638) that would increase judicial salaries by 29 percent—the same margin approved by the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives in a similar measure (H.R. 3753) late last year. If enacted, the salary boost would mark the first significant raise for federal judges since 1991.

The Senate and House measures— 

  • Raise the pay of a district court judge to $218,000, an appeals judge to $231,000, a Supreme Court associate justice to $267,900, and the chief justice to $279,900 (district judges currently earn $169,300, the same pay that members of Congress earn; in 1999, the President's salary was doubled to $400,000 a year);
  • Increase the workload of senior judges from three months a year to four months a year and require 17 years of service before a judge may retire with a full pension; 
  • Require a judge to lose a dollar of the judge's pension for every two dollars earned above his or her old salary—down to a baseline of 33 percent of the judge's salary—if the judge leaves the bench to take a higher paying job. 
  • Ensure that all federal judges get a cost-of-living adjustment each year that is equal to the one provided to federal employees under the General Schedule payscale.

No date for floor action in the House or Senate on the judicial pay bills has been set. But the leaders of both chambers have pledged to pass their judiciary pay bills in 2008. In his recent annual report on the state of the federal judiciary, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. urged Congress to make approval of a judicial salary increase "a first order of business" in 2008 and called a pay hike for judges "vital" and long overdue.

Indeed, the independence and quality of our nation's judiciary depends critically on the ability to recruit and retain high-caliber judges, who have strong intellect, personal independence, and high professional standards. The framers of the Constitution sought to protect these qualities by providing lifetime appointments for federal judges and forbidding a reduction in their compensation.

Regrettably, since 1969, the salaries of federal judges have fallen well behind those of the American labor force in terms of keeping up with inflation. Over the past 19 years, when adjusted for inflation, the national average for all wages rose by 18.5 percent, whereas judicial pay declined by nearly 25 percent. It is not coincidental that federal judges have been leaving the bench at an unprecedented and alarming rate. In the past six years, 38 judges have left the federal bench, including 17 in the last two years. Many of these judges have acknowledged publicly that their departures stemmed from financial needs that have been compounded by the erosion of their salaries.

FBA chapters have brought these trends and statistics to the attention of members of Congress, and, from that outreach, the FBA has helped to build support and understanding on Capitol Hill for restoring judicial pay to a respectable level. As FBA Executive Director Jack Lockridge recently said in a message to chapter leaders, "A big thank you goes out to the leaders and members of the many FBA chapters that have assisted with grassroots support on the pay issue over the past several months, writing letters and calling their lawmakers in bringing us to this point. Our work is far from over though. We need to continue the push until Congress has passed and the President has signed a final measure."

Bruce Moyer is government relations counsel for the FBA.
© 2008 Bruce Moyer. All rights reserved.

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