WASHINGTON - In his first formal statement on the presidential election, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist said that the impasse over the Florida ballots "tested our constitutional system in ways it has never been tested before."
Rehnquist's annual report to Congress on the U.S. judiciary did not mention the criticism leveled against the high court. Nor did the chief justice, who was in the majority, attempt to defend the 5-4 ruling that rejected a recount of Florida presidential election votes and handed the election to Republican George W. Bush.
Rather, he expressed the hope that the courts would never again have to decide a presidential election.
Rehnquist got to the point immediately, addressing the election in the opening paragraph of his 15th year-end report to Congress since becoming chief justice.
"Despite the seesaw aftermath of the presidential election, we are once again witnessing an orderly transition of power from one presidential administration to another," the chief justice said.
"This presidential election, however, tested our constitutional system in ways it has never been tested before. The Florida state courts, the lower federal courts and the Supreme Court of the United States became involved in a way that one hopes will seldom, if ever, be necessary in the future."
Paul Rothstein, a law professor at Georgetown University, said it was "very unusual" for the chief justice to publicly express his hope that an issue would not return to the court.
"Obviously some of the publicity about the court being partisan has filtered through to him, and I think he felt it necessary to say something in response. It's just a touch defensive. They're chafing a little bit under the criticism," he said when Rehnquist's comments were read to him.
Most of the report focused on such perennial issues as lagging salaries of federal judges, their caseloads and the need for more judges.
The chief justice criticized legislation that would restrict federal judges from attending private seminars at the expense of the sponsors. Under the proposal, judges could attend - at government expense - only "seminars that are conducted in a manner so as to maintain the public's confidence in an unbiased and fair-minded judiciary."
In July, the Community Rights Counsel, a public interest law firm, reported that nearly 100 federal judges had attended expense-paid seminars that favor "free market" solutions to environmental problems. The seminars, according to the organization, are funded by conservative foundations.
The proposed law, Rehnquist said, "has most of the elements commonly associated with government censorship."
While federal judges' salaries are higher than those of many professions, Rehnquist emphasized that lawyers qualified to serve on the bench "have opportunities to earn far more in private practice or business."
In order to continue to attract highly qualified and diverse federal judges for lifetime appointments, the chief justice said, they must be paid adequately.
At the beginning of this year, U.S. district judges' annual salaries will rise from $141,300 to $145,100; and U.S. appeals judges' from $149,900 to $153,900; associate justices of the Supreme Court, from $173,600 to $178,300; and the chief justice, from $181,400 to $186,300.
At the Supreme Court, the caseload increased from 7,109 in the 1998 term to 7,377 in the 1999 term, an increase of 3.8 percent.