FOR YEARS, federal judges have complained, with justification, about salaries that dramatically lag behind those of even inexperienced lawyers in the private sector. Perhaps as a result, many judges have felt justified in indulging in an unseemly practice: accepting all-expenses-paid trips to lavish resorts for seminars funded by interest groups with business before the courts. Last week the Senate Judiciary Committee tackled both of these long-standing problems with a sensible compromise that strikes a blow for both fairer judicial pay and higher standards of judicial ethics.
Under the Senate bill, which calls for 29 percent raises, trial judges' salaries would increase to $218,000; appeals judges would earn $231,100; Supreme Court associate justices, $267,900; and the chief justice, $279,900. Judges would continue to enjoy extraordinarily generous pensions, and they would be entitled to automatic annual cost-of-living raises. Similar legislation has been approved by the House Judiciary Committee. Judges should be cheering, but they're not, because the bill contains restrictions that could limit their financial gains in other ways. The biggest hit comes in the form of limits to the amount of outside income judges may earn and restrictions on reimbursements for educational seminars. Under the Senate bill, judges can be reimbursed for expenses related to a seminar "a significant purpose of which is the education" of judges if the event is sponsored by bar associations, judicial associations or the judicial division of the American Bar Association. The purpose of this amendment is to stop judges from accepting thousands of dollars worth of transportation, lodging and food from interest groups that hold "seminars" to push their legal and ideological agendas to a captive audience.
The move to prohibit these junkets is long overdue, but it may have unintended consequences. Judges may accept no more than a $2,000 reimbursement per event or $20,000 annually for attending approved educational seminars, speaking engagements, or teaching opportunities. As the Judicial Conference of the United States noted in a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee, such caps could "severely and unnecessarily restrict judges from traveling to law schools for lectures, conferences and moot courts." This is probably true and would be unfortunate. Lawmakers should stand firm in banning reimbursement for private junkets, but they should consider increasing the caps for approved events.