WHEN JOHN G. Roberts Jr. was seeking confirmation as chief justice of the United States, he told the Senate that judges should be guided by "institutional and personal modesty and humility." Alas, Roberts has ignored his own advice. In his annual report on the judicial branch, he calls inadequate pay for federal judges a "constitutional crisis that threatens to undermine the strength and independence of the federal judiciary."
Watergate was a constitutional crisis. "Massive resistance" by Southern states to the Supreme Court's desegregation rulings was a constitutional crisis. Al Gore's refusal to accept the Supreme Court's decision in Bush vs. Gore would have been a constitutional crisis. Less-than-ideal pay for federal judges is a political problem.
In asking for higher pay for judges, Roberts is echoing not just his mentor, the late William H. Rehnquist, but blue-ribbon commissions and the organized bar. Like them, he argues that pay for federal judges has not kept up with inflation, that financial anxieties have caused some judges to resign from the bench early and that the quality of the federal bench has suffered as a result.
Maybe so. But Roberts, known for his caution in crafting judicial opinions, overreaches, especially when he suggests that once "judicial appointment ceases to be the capstone of a distinguished career and instead becomes a stepping stone to a lucrative position in private practice, the framers' goal of a truly independent judiciary will be placed in serious jeopardy."