Many of the nation's senior federal judges--the more than 200 retired judges who maintain active caseloads to assist an overburdened federal judiciary--quit working Monday because Congress failed to act on a bill that would have kept them exempt from participation in the Social Security system.
The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts in Washington had no immediate count of the number of judges nationwide who declined to hear cases Monday, but warned that an extended work slowdown could disrupt federal appeals courts nationwide and seriously impede the work of smaller district courts heavily dependent on work by senior judges. Court officials estimated that senior judges account for 20% to 30% of the 1,000-member federal bench.
"There's a substantial number (not working) around the country," said L. Ralph Mecham, director of the court office in Washington. "There are enough of them so it's clearly causing a difficult problem in a lot of courts."
There was no apparent organization to the walkout. Rather, it appeared to be the result of independent decisions by judges facing the loss of as much as $1,000 in monthly income. However, court officials Monday suggested that the walkout will spread unless Congress reverses its decision.
"There is a great deal of confusion," said Bill Weller, legislative affairs officer for the court office in Washington.
Chief Judge James Browning of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals--the top federal judge for nine Western states, including California--said most of the West's 40 senior judges were continuing to work. But Browning predicted that many judges would stop accepting assignments if Congress fails to restore their exemption from Social Security within 60 to 90 days.
"If it is not corrected, it would make a very substantial dent in the available judicial manpower," he said.
The three senior district judges in San Diego, all of whom work virtually full-time, canceled their court calendars indefinitely beginning Monday, prompting the district court to reassign their caseloads to active judges.
In Los Angeles, most of the nine senior district judges were continuing to work, but the judges said they had not had time to discuss the situation and might reconsider.
"You are going to get a varying impact around the country. Probably a pretty good number will say, 'I'm not going to work,' " said U.S. District Judge Laughlin E. Waters of Los Angeles, a member of the executive committee of the Federal Judges Assn. "If that happened in Los Angeles, it would have a serious impact on our caseload."
Judges reaching retirement age have two alternatives. They can retire at full pay and leave the bench entirely, or retire to senior status. As senior judges, they set their own pace, normally handling smaller caseloads than active judges. They are paid the same salary as active judges. Senior judgeships were established in the 1950s to reduce backlogs in the federal courts and lessen the need to create new judgeships.
In 1983, when active federal judges, members of Congress and Cabinet-level officers were enrolled in the Social Security system as part of an overhaul of the retirement program, Congress exempted senior judges through Dec. 31, 1985.
By last month, both the House and Senate had endorsed a provision that would have made the exemption permanent. But the provision was attached to a deficit-reduction bill that failed to pass Congress in the dwindling moments of the 1985 legislative session.
Court officials, congressmen and many judges expect the exemption to be restored within weeks after Congress returns to session later this month.
But meanwhile, senior judges face the predicament, as some of them have put it, of having to pay if they want to work.
According to Weller, federal judges who simply quit working when they become eligible for retirement--at age 65, with 15 years of federal service--receive for life the salary they were earning upon retirement. At current pay levels, appeals court judges can retire at $83,200 per year and district judges can retire at $78,700. Those retired judges also may receive whatever Social Security benefits they earned during their years in private legal practice.
But with the termination of their exemption from Social Security on Jan. 1, judges who accept senior status and continue to work will have Social Security taxes withheld from their paychecks. In addition, judges between the ages of 65 and 70 who were collecting Social Security benefits lose their rights to those benefits.
"Some of the judges do not believe they can afford that financial sacrifice, and are therefore at this moment deciding they cannot accept assignments," Weller explained.
U.S. District Judge Leland C. Nielsen of San Diego is one of the judges who canceled a calendar of criminal cases Monday and will refuse to work until Congress restores the exemption.