Supreme Court Chief Justice Roberts opts not to ask Congress to raise judicial salaries

By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 1, 2010

In last year's report on the state of the federal judiciary, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said he was "tired" of beseeching Congress once again to raise judges' salaries to keep pace with inflation and the high-priced market for lawyers. He suspected lawmakers were tired of hearing the plea as well.

So this year, he didn't try.

Roberts abandoned the decades-old practice of history lessons and philosophical lectures accompanying the call for bigger salaries that have become standard for the Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary.

It is a New Year's tradition begun by Chief Justice Warren E. Burger in 1970, but apparently Roberts saw no point in trying to find a new way to say the same thing.

"In the past few years, I have adhered to the tradition that Chief Justice Burger initiated and have provided my perspective on the most critical needs of the judiciary," Roberts wrote, adding that many of those needs remain.

"This year, however, when the political branches are faced with so many difficult issues, and when so many of our fellow citizens have been touched by hardship, the public might welcome a year-end report limited to what is essential: The courts are operating soundly, and the nation's dedicated federal judges are conscientiously discharging their duties," he wrote.

The chief justice, who took his seat in 2005, did provide a statistical analysis of the judiciary's workload, which showed significant increases in criminal cases and bankruptcies.

Criminal case filings rose 8 percent in 2009 over the previous year, and the number of defendants in the federal system set a record at nearly 98,000. "The number of criminal cases reached its highest level since 1932, the year before ratification of the Twenty-first Amendment, which repealed prohibition," Roberts wrote.

He said the increases came in cases related to immigration, fraud, marijuana trafficking and sex offenses. Immigration filings climbed to record levels, mostly because of allegations of "improper reentry by aliens or fraud or misuse of a visa or entry permit," according to the report.

The number of bankruptcy filings grew 35 percent from the 2008 total, a result of the nation's struggling economy. Roberts noted that it was the highest number of filings since 2005, when there was a rush to file in advance of a new federal law that changed standards.

He noted that his own court had a modest uptick in its workload in the term that began in October 2008. The court heard arguments in 87 cases, and 83 of them were decided in 74 signed opinions. That compared with 67 signed opinions in the previous term.

Last year, Roberts made the plea that judges should at least receive the same cost-of-living adjustments that other federal workers and members of Congress received. Lawmakers complied. The chief justice's salary was raised to $223,500, while other members of the court received $213,900. Judges at the circuit level were paid $184,500 and district judges $174,000.

There have been sporadic attempts at a comprehensive change in judicial salaries, although academic studies have differed on whether pay makes a substantial difference in the quality of those who seek the positions. Roberts apparently concluded that an election year in which belt-tightening is the new mantra was not the time to revive the debate.

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