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Worsening economy leaves federal judges shortchanged

A quirk in federal law prevents them from getting automatic cost-of-living increases. A bill before Congress to boost their salaries showed promise -- but that was before the Wall Street meltdown.

January 01, 2009|David G. Savage

WASHINGTON — Joining the many who felt shortchanged by 2008 are the nation's federal judges.

They were the only federal employees who did not receive a cost-of-living pay increase. And in December, they lost out when a bill before Congress to significantly raise their salaries was dropped during the debate over the proposed auto-industry bailout.

In his fourth year-end report on the federal judiciary, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said he has been repeating himself.

"I suspect many are tired of hearing it, and I know I am tired of saying it, but I must make this plea again: Congress must provide judicial compensation that keeps pace with inflation," he wrote. "Judges knew what the pay was when they answered the call of public service. But they did not know that Congress would steadily erode that pay in real terms by repeatedly failing over the years to provide even cost-of-living increases."

A quirk in federal law prevents judges from receiving automatic pay increases, unlike other federal employees. Six times in the last 15 years, judges did not receive the routine cost-of-living increase for federal employees, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.

As the chief justice of the United States, Roberts is the leader of the federal judiciary as well as the Supreme Court. Midway through 2008, he was optimistic that Congress would restore the lost cost-of-living increases for judges; both the House and Senate had approved bills that would have increased judicial salaries by about 28%.

But when the stock market plunged in September, lawmakers hesitated to pass the pay increase for the judiciary. The bills died in the final days of the congressional session.

In 2008, U.S. district judges earned $169,300, and U.S. appeals court judges earned $179,500. At the Supreme Court, the eight associate justices were paid $208,100, and the chief justice was paid $217,400.

Roberts said the federal judiciary -- the third branch of the U.S. government -- is a relative bargain. The total appropriation for the federal courts system was $6.2 billion in 2008, he said.

"That represents a mere two-tenths of 1% of the United States' total $3-trillion budget. Two-tenths of 1%," Roberts wrote.

He said the judiciary "is committed to spending its tiny share of the federal budget responsibly. But courts cannot preserve their vitality simply by following a nonfat regimen. The judiciary must also continue to attract judges who are the best of the best."


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