Chief justice backs raises for judges

Roberts says lagging salaries threaten `to undermine' the federal court system

January 01, 2007|By David G. Savage | David G. Savage,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- Taking advantage of what he called a "historically slow news day," Chief Justice John G. Roberts will release a report today calling for a raise for federal judges.

Roberts said in his second year-end report that the issue of lagging salaries "threatens to undermine" the court system.

"This is usually the point at which many will put down the annual report and return to the Rose Bowl," he conceded, but he beseeched readers to "bear with me long enough to consider" some revealing comparisons.

In 1969, federal judges earned substantially more than the dean and the senior professors at Harvard Law School, Roberts said. "Today, federal judges are paid substantially less - about half - what the deans and senior law professors at top schools are paid," he said.

During the same period, the average U.S. worker's wage, when adjusted for inflation, has risen by about 18 percent. By contrast, the pay for a federal judge has declined by about 24 percent when adjusted for inflation, creating a gap of 42 percent, the chief justice said.

Federal judges, who have lifetime appointments, "do not expect to receive salaries commensurate with what they could easily earn in the private sector," Robert acknowledged. Indeed, judges in many cities know that lawyers fresh out of law school will earn more than they do, he noted.

But judges should not have to accept salaries that "fall further and further behind the cost of living," Roberts said. "The time is ripe for our nation's judges to receive a substantial salary increase."

Roberts did not indicate how much he thinks judges should be paid.

The chief justice, who is head of the federal judicial system, faces an uphill fight in persuading Congress to increase the salaries of judges. That's because during the past 20 years, the pay rates for judges have been tied to those for members of Congress.

In 2006, U.S. senators, representatives and federal district judges were paid salaries of $165,200, or $3,100 more than in 2005.

Judges on the federal appeals courts were paid $175,100. The eight associate justices of the Supreme Court earned $203,000, while the chief justice received $212,100.

The Democratic takeover of Congress could work to the advantage of the judiciary, however.

Senate Democrats Dianne Feinstein of California, Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont and John Kerry of Massachusetts sponsored a bill last year that would have increased the salaries for federal judges by 16 percent.

David G. Savage writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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