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Raise U.S. Judges' Pay, Cut Rent, Roberts Urges

January 01, 2006|David G. Savage | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — New Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., in his first Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary, called on Congress today to raise the salaries of federal judges and to lower the rents the government charges for courthouses.

"I recognize that it is a bit presumptuous for me to issue this report at this time, barely three months after taking the oath as chief justice," wrote Roberts, who as leader of the Supreme Court is also head of the federal court system. "It remains for me very much a time for listening rather than speaking."

But he said in the report that he did not want "to start the new year by breaking with a 30-year-old tradition" established by his predecessors, Chief Justices Warren E. Burger and William H. Rehnquist.

"New Year's Day in America means football, parades and, of course, the Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary," Roberts wrote.

Like Burger and Rehnquist, Roberts said federal judges deserved higher salaries. Since 1969, the inflation-adjusted pay of federal judges has fallen almost 24%, he said.

Congress recently approved a 1.9% increase for U.S. judges as of today. The salary of the chief justice will be $212,100; his associate justices will earn $203,000. U.S. appeals judges will be paid $175,100; federal district judges, $165,200.

Paying the rent is a lesser-known problem for federal judges. The new chief justice said many people might be surprised to learn that the federal judiciary must "pay a large and ever-increasing portion of its budget as rent to another part of the government -- the General Services Administration."

The Defense Department does not pay rent on the Pentagon or its military bases, and the government does not pay rent for prisons, embassies, hospitals or congressional office buildings, court officials note. But the federal judiciary is charged rent for courthouses, even those that were built and paid for decades earlier.

Although the executive branch spends less than 0.2% of its annual budget on GSA rent, such payments amount to about 16% of the U.S. judiciary's budget.

"During fiscal year 2005, the judiciary paid $926 million to GSA in rent, even though GSA's actual cost for providing space to the judiciary was $426 million," Roberts said.

"The federal judiciary cannot continue to serve as a profit center for GSA."

The new chief justice also noted the violent attacks against judges and their families in 2005. In Chicago, a federal judge's husband and her mother were killed by a disappointed litigant; in an Atlanta courthouse shooting, a judge, a court reporter and a deputy were killed.

"We see emerging democracies around the world struggle to establish court systems in which judges can apply the rule of law free from the threat of violence; we must take every step to ensure that our own judges, to whom so much of the world looks as models of independence, never face violent attack for carrying out their duties," Roberts said.

He closed with words of memory for Rehnquist, who died Sept. 3. Roberts came to Washington in 1980 as a law clerk to then-Associate Justice Rehnquist.

"He will be counted by history -- an avocation to which he offered four books of his own -- as among the handful of great chief justices of the United States," Roberts said. "For the many of us both within and outside the judiciary who were fortunate enough to know him personally, he will always be remembered as a fair, thoughtful and decent man."

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