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Federal judges and bigger paychecks

January 13, 2007

Re "A judicious salary," editorial, Jan. 7

Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. is apoplectic over judicial salaries, saying pay raises are long overdue. He gripes to Congress that federal judges are paid a fraction of what top private-practice attorneys make and about half of what top law school deans and professors earn.

A handful of judges have walked away from their lifetime appointments -- 17 over the last two years, or about 2% of the judiciary. The private sector would cherish such low turnover. But to Roberts, it "has now reached the level of a constitutional crisis. Inadequate compensation directly threatens the viability of life tenure, and if tenure in office is made uncertain, the strength and independence judges need to uphold the rule of law -- even when it is unpopular to do so -- will be seriously eroded."

Based on the urgency of Roberts' language, you'd think there were hundreds of vacancies on the federal bench. The truth is, most lawyers would give their eyeteeth for a lifetime federal job that lets them set their own hours.


Columbus, Ohio


I appreciate the editorial support for a long-overdue, equitable pay increase for federal judges and a de-linkage of annual cost-of-living increases from those of Congress. I think, however, you partly misunderstood Roberts' concern for an independent judiciary if judges come to view a federal judgeship as "a steppingstone to a lucrative position in private practice."

You are correct that "it is life tenure, not annual salary, that assures judicial independence." But if judges individually decide to shed the insulation of life tenure for a bigger paycheck, they may well start to worry about how their decisions will look on their future resumes. In that sense, one might be concerned about a constitutional crisis.


Sherman Oaks

The writer is a judge on the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

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