The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to vote today on a proposed pay raise for federal judges — an issue of considerable importance to the quality and independence of the judiciary. Sitting federal trial judges currently earn $165,200 a year — the same as a member of Congress. That is not a trivial amount. But the case for a substantial increase is a strong one, much as the Supreme Court’s chief justice, John Roberts, has urged in his last two annual reports, embracing a cause championed by his predecessor, William Rehnquist. To ensure a good deal for the public, the new pay package should include an overdue tightening of the gift rules to bar corporate-sponsored junkets.
Although Congress has approved occasional cost-of-living increases, federal judges have not had a significant raise in nearly two decades. From 1969 to 2006, according to figures compiled by the Administrative Office of the United States Courts, federal judicial pay declined by almost a quarter when adjusted for inflation. The national average for all wages rose by about 18 percent.
That, Chief Justice Roberts notes, “has left federal trial judges — the backbone of our system of justice — earning about the same as (and in some cases less than) first-year lawyers at firms in major cities, where many of the judges are located.” Federal judges’ salaries also lag well behind many law school deans, senior law professors and even senior government lawyers.
In December, the House Judiciary Committee approved, by an overwhelming 28-5 vote, a bill that would raise the pay of federal trial judges to $218,000 a year, with comparable raises for other judges. That may seem too much, especially given the current economic downturn, and a smaller increase might be easier politically. But judges have been losing ground on pay for so many years that, in fairness, the large increase is more a salary restoration than a raise.
In exchange for the increase, Americans are entitled to an improvement in ethical standards. Senator Russ Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin, is right to propose strict curbs on the expense-paid junkets financed by private interests with business before the courts. Justified as educational “seminars,” these freebies have soiled the court system’s reputation. Sadly, the judiciary has shown itself incapable of effective self-policing.