- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 1, 2003

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist began 2003 by seeking salary increases for federal judges, but said he was doing so "at the risk of beating a dead horse."
Bigger paychecks for federal jurists are essential to prevent good judges from leaving the lifetime job over salary concerns and rendering the judiciary a career for "only the well-to-do or the mediocre," the chief justice said in the annual report released today.
The pay-parity problem was exacerbated when Congress failed to give jurists the 3.1 percent raise all civilian federal employees receive today, the first time in 40 years the judges were not linked to congressional raises. A court spokesman said congressional leaders have pledged to correct that slight once the 108th Congress convenes on Tuesday.
Members of Congress now will earn $154,650 a year, compared with $150,000 for U.S. District judges.
The chief justice also renewed calls to increase judicial staffing, but his main target was the growing shortfall between judicial paychecks and higher wage levels at big law firms, law schools and other career paths for top lawyers.
"At the present time, there is not just a gap, there is a chasm," Chief Justice Rehnquist said while conceding that the general public may be skeptical about why professionals earning $150,000 need raises.
"It is not fair to compare judges' salaries to salaries in other occupations," the chief justice said in answering his own question. His efforts began in 1989, when Congress sharply restricted judges' outside earned income while promising to maintain real earnings.
After he joined the high court in 1994, Justice Stephen G. Breyer charged that promise "soon was broken" and proposed the Supreme Court decide if the Constitution's ban on reducing a judge's compensation was violated.
While Chief Justice Rehnquist argued that most of the 70 federal judges who resigned in the last 12 years returned to private practice, apparently to increase earnings, he did not address why so many high-profile nominees remained willing to brave a political storm for confirmation.
A Justice Department spokeswoman said the government's top courtroom litigator, Solicitor General Theodore Olson, receives a $138,200 salary. That is a fraction of his private-practice earnings, and many top Justice Department lawyers are paid far less.
As for shortages in resources other than paychecks, Chief Justice Rehnquist said, "I am struck by the number of issues that seem regularly to crop up, or perhaps they never go away" too few authorized judgeships, too many vacancies and rocketing caseloads.
But he said the priority is the diminished buying power of a judge's paycheck.
"The need to increase judicial salaries remains the most pressing issue today," the nation's top judge said in the plea that President Bush and the new Republican-led Congress bridge the "salary chasm." He did not mention amounts, but comparisons offered to a federal commission in October seemed to suggest parity with chief executives of nonprofit organizations.
At hearings before the National Commission on the Public Service, chaired by Paul Volcker, Chief Justice Rehnquist (who, like Vice President Richard B. Cheney, receives $192,600) and Justice Breyer ($184,400) compared the $212,000 average for chief executives of nonprofits with the $150,000 district court salary. That is also about the same amount some law firms pay first-year associates fresh from law school.
Justice Breyer presented the Volcker Commission a collection of charts, showing the largest law firm partners reap upwards of $800,000, senior law professors average $250,000, and law school deans receive $325,000.
Despite his boss's feeling that comparisons are "not fair," Justice Breyer didn't hesitate to offer them and to point out how much the tables had turned since he was a Harvard Law School professor.
"Back in 1969, when I was at Harvard, top professors were paid $28,000 and the dean was paid $33,000, while district court judges were paid $40,000," Justice Breyer said.
The chief justice's main thrust seemed to be that a diverse and qualified judiciary requires a competitive salary to keep the best judges after they learn the ropes.
"We need judges from different backgrounds, and we want them to stay for life," he said.


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