By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 1, 2007
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. devoted his annual year-end report on the state of the nation's courts to just one issue, albeit one he said has "now reached the level of a constitutional crisis and threatens to undermine the strength and independence of the federal judiciary."
He continued: "I am talking about the failure to raise judicial pay."
Roberts may have employed such dramatic language because he acknowledges that there have been frequent calls for raising the pay of federal judges, with very limited success. The chief justice points out that his predecessor, William H. Rehnquist, championed the cause for 20 years, and numerous commissions and reports advocating pay increases have failed to excite Congress and the citizenry.
"This is usually the point at which many will put down the annual report and return to the Rose Bowl, but bear with me," Roberts wrote.
Congress has not acted on judicial pay for 2007, so for now salaries remain at their 2006 levels. That means Roberts will continue to be paid $212,100 a year, with associate Supreme Court justices at $203,000, appeals court judges at $175,100 and federal district judges at $165,200.
That's far more than the average American worker makes, but Roberts argued that while worker wages have increased nearly 18 percent in real terms since 1969, federal judicial pay has declined nearly 24 percent. And he said that while federal judges in 1969 made more money than the deans at the nation's top law schools, they now make only about half what deans and top law professors make.
"We do not even talk about comparisons with the practicing bar anymore," Roberts added parenthetically. Supreme Court clerks are routinely given a signing bonus equivalent to a justice's annual salary when they join one of Washington's top law firms after a year at the court, and Roberts pointed out that beginning lawyers often make as much as the experienced federal judges before whom they practice.
Some law professors and other legal activists have said the threat to the judiciary by stagnant salaries is overblown, and that those who want to be judges aren't drawn by compensation.
But Roberts and others -- Justice Antonin Scalia has also recently called for increases -- say it is affecting the type of lawyer who wants to be a judge. More judges are coming from public-sector backgrounds and fewer from the practicing bar.
"The dramatic erosion of judicial compensation will inevitably result in a decline in the quality of persons willing to accept a lifetime appointment as a federal judge," Roberts wrote, adding that the judiciary should not be made up of the independently wealthy or "people for whom the judicial salary represents a pay increase."
The year-end statement from the chief justice is not exactly in the same category with the State of the Union address. It comes with a dense appendix of the courts' workload -- the diminishing number of cases the high court itself accepts has been much commented on in legal circles -- and with such arcane findings as "the national median time from filing of a civil case to its disposition was 8.3 months, which reflected a decline from the 9.5-month median period in 2005."
Roberts good-naturedly referred to the lack of anticipation of the report, saying he'd once asked Rehnquist why he released it on New Year's Day.
"He explained that it was difficult to get people to focus on the needs of the judiciary and January 1 was historically a slow news day," Roberts wrote.