Chief Justice Roberts Tones Down Annual Salary Plea, Seeks Cost-of-Living Increase for Federal Judges

By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 1, 2009

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. put aside his aspirations for a significant pay raise for federal judges in the annual report he issued yesterday, instead imploring Congress to at least provide the cost-of-living increases that lawmakers and every other federal worker received.

The call for a pay raise -- and Congress's not providing it -- have become such a tradition that even Roberts seemed weary of it in his year-end message about the federal judiciary.

"I suspect many are tired of hearing it, and I know I am tired of saying it, but I must make this plea again," he wrote. "Congress must provide judicial compensation that keeps pace with inflation."

Judges feel particularly aggrieved this year because, while cost-of-living adjustments are automatic for federal workers and members of Congress -- with lawmakers' salaries set to rise by about $4,700 in 2009 -- such increases for the judiciary require an affirmative vote of Congress. This year, the increases got caught up in the failed legislation that would have aided automobile manufacturers.

"Congress's inaction this year vividly illustrates why judges' salaries have declined in real terms over the past twenty years," Roberts wrote.

The new Congress is likely to provide the inflation increase for judges when it convenes this month. Salaries for the federal judiciary range from about $169,000 for a district judge to Roberts's salary of around $218,000.

The issue of lagging judicial salaries has been a staple of the chief justice's annual report since before Roberts assumed the role. Those who advocate higher compensation note that salaries for law school deans and professors at the most prestigious schools dwarf judicial pay, and first-year associates at law firms in New York and Washington earn as much as a district judge.

But Roberts's description of the issue two years ago as a "constitutional crisis" prompted a bit of a backlash. Critics pointed out that there appears to be no lack of lawyers interested in judicial appointment with pay as it is. Judges may supplement their salaries with teaching, and a judge who has served for 15 years by the time he or she reaches age 65 can receive full salary for life.

Committees in both houses of Congress have approved a major judicial pay increase that has bipartisan support among the leadership. It would boost salaries to levels that judges would have received if they had been granted all of their cost-of-living adjustments, but the plan has collapsed along with the economy.

Roberts acknowledged the hard times in his report and said the courts have done their part to save from a judiciary budget that is less than 1 percent of the federal budget.

And his plea this year was more low-key, acknowledging that judges "knew what the pay was when they answered the call of public service."

But those salaries are not keeping up with inflation, he said.

"Given the judiciary's small cost, and its absolutely critical role in protecting the Constitution and rights we enjoy, I must renew the judiciary's modest petition: Simply provide cost-of-living increases that have been unfairly denied!" Roberts wrote. "We have done our part -- it is long past time for Congress to do its."

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