By MARK SHERMAN
The Associated Press
Wednesday, February 14, 2007; 2:45 PM
WASHINGTON -- Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy told Congress on Wednesday that first-rate federal judges are leaving because of inadequate pay, a problem he said hurts morale and threatens to undermine judicial independence.
Earnings at private law firms have outpaced judges' pay for many years, and Kennedy said judges now find better compensation at the leading law schools, as well.
"I'm losing my best judges," he said during a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He specifically cited U.S. District Judge David Levi, who is leaving as the chief federal judge in Sacramento, Calif., to become dean of Duke University's law school.
Kennedy worries that new judges, on the whole, are less qualified than the judges they are replacing.
Federal district court judges are paid $165,200 annually; appeals court judges make $175,100; associate justices of the Supreme Court earn $203,000; the chief justice gets $212,100.
Those figures are far less than what lawyers at private firms earn. District judges are paid about half that of deans and senior law professors at top schools.
Kennedy said "$160,000 sounds like a lot of money to the average American and it is. But it is insufficient to attract the finest members of the practicing bar to the bench."
Nineteen federal judges left their jobs since the end of 2004, many of them to take higher-paying jobs. Meanwhile, first-year lawyers at leading firms in large cities are earning almost as much as district judges.
Chief Justice John Roberts has made judges' pay the centerpiece of his efforts as head of the federal judiciary, calling the issue a "constitutional crisis."
Kennedy got a sympathetic reaction from Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the committee chairman, and Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the senior Republican. The Senate has passed a bill they wrote this year that would boost judges' salaries to keep pace with the rate of inflation.
Legislation languished in Congress in 2006 that would have provided a 16 percent increase in federal judges' salaries.
But other senators suggested that judges already are handsomely compensated.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., told Kennedy he recognized the lure of large paychecks was driving some judges into private firms, but he noted that judges already earn more than 95 percent of the population.
Former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker recently called for a significant pay raise for judges, pointing out that they would be earning $261,000 a year if their salaries had risen at the same pace as U.S. workers generally since 1969.
Kennedy also sparred with Specter over allowing television cameras at the Supreme Court. Specter has introduced legislation that would require the justices to televise their proceedings.
Kennedy, who has previously expressed his opposition, said cameras would damage the way justices relate to each other and lawyers during oral arguments.
"Please don't introduce into the dynamics I have with my colleagues the insidious temptation that one of my colleagues is trying to get a sound bite for the cameras. We don't want that," Kennedy said.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said that in his experience as a Texas Supreme Court justice, the camera "was very unobtrusive."
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