WASHINGTON — Chief Justice Warren E. Burger urged Congress on Tuesday to save "a priceless asset" by restoring the Social Security payroll exemption for the nation's 275 senior federal judges so that they do not have to pay the government to work.
More than a third of the senior judges, whose active caseloads prevent the judicial system from sinking in "the mounting sea of litigation," have stopped accepting cases since Jan. 1, when they lost their exemption from Social Security deductions, Burger said.
Burger said that the cost to the judges ranges from $3,000 to $12,000 annually. Besides the Social Security tax, some states, including California, treat the judges' income as ordinary income for tax purposes instead of as retirement income.
In identical letters to Vice President George Bush, in his capacity as Senate president, and to House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.), Burger blamed the crush of the final days of the last session of Congress. The letters accompanied draft legislation to solve the problem.
House and Senate conferees had approved a remedy, but it was included in a report on the budget reconciliation bill that Congress did not pass before it adjourned Dec. 20.
Seeks Early Remedy
Burger said in a statement that he had been advised "that Congress intends to remedy the problem early in the session," which opened Tuesday.
The problem resulted from the 1983 Social Security Amendments Act, which imposed Social Security deductions on senior judges who continued to handle cases as of Jan. 1. Judges who retired and did no judicial work were not affected--a situation that Burger said created a "drastic disincentive" for the judges to continue taking cases.
As a result, 80 of the 208 senior district judges and 16 of the 63 senior circuit judges have stopped accepting case assignments, according to William Weller, legislative affairs officer for the administrative office of U.S. courts.
Did Work of 85 Judges
Last year, the senior judges eased the load on the nation's 686 active judges by conducting 2,350 trials and participating in 7,550 appellate court arguments--work equivalent to that of at least 85 active-service judges, according to Burger.
"The experience and wisdom our senior judges provide is of even greater value than their substantial quantitative contribution," he said. "If we lose their services, we lose a priceless asset."
Referring to those senior judges who are continuing to work, Burger said: "Their devotion to duty and concern for the public interest cannot be taxed forever."