Judge Harold R. Greene is somewhat of a chief among equals on the U.S. District Court when it comes to getting paid.Thanks to a $19,000-a-year pension he receives as a retired D.C. Superior Court Judge, Greene is paid $73,500 each year -- just $1,500 less than Chief Justice Warren Burger of the U.S. Supreme Court. $1
Greene's double dipping is not illegal. In fact, one of his colleagues, Joyce H. Green, is also eligible to receive a similar pension in four years when she turns 55.
The important thing here is not that Greene is taking the pension money, rightfully his for 10 years or more of service on the Supreme Court bench. Rather, Greene's case underscores the fact that judges do not live by salary alone, and that the debate about salary scales for federal judges is not just a matter of simple facts and figures.
The American Bar Association is leading the fight for higher salaries for judges. On the surface, ABA's argument is straightforward: Judges have lost ground to inflation. They were paid $40,000 a year in 1969. That's worth about $24,000 today, according to the ABA. The increase they received in 1977 to $54,500 hasn't kept pace.
Last week, Burger gave himself and his colleagues a hefty raise. Judges in the District court will soon earn about $67,000 a year. But the ABA recently told a federal pay commission that to keep pace with inflation, the figure ought to be $97,000.
ABA President William Reece Smith urged the commission to grieve for our federal judges: "The ravages of inflation have brought us close to the point where a middle-aged person with a family to support cannot exist with security and dignity on the salary of a federal judge." The commission decided, nevertheless, to recommend $85,000.
To buttress their case, advocates of massive pay raises point out that a record number of judges -- 27 in the past decade -- are leaving the bench, many because of the vast difference between what they get on the bench and what they could make in private legal practice.
There is some exaggeration here. At least nine of the 27 left to accept high positions in the government or were indicted. Another was 82 years old.
There is another problem with the ABA calculations: What passes for a "subdignified" wage in New York or Chicago may not be so bad in Kansas City or Denver. Yet the proposal is to ignore geographic distinctions.
The reality is that, like Greene, many -- perhaps most -- judges have been appointed after years of service in state or local government or courts. Others may be eligible for private pensions after years of making it big in private practice; and they may have significant investments from those years. (Since judges as yet are not required to disclose their full incomes, there is no way to know.)
There are, of course, many judges who do not have supplemental incomes. There is no question that those judges deserve some salary adjustment because they have been hurt badly by inflation.
It is also probably true that, especially in the larger cities, salary differences are making it increasingly difficult to induce top lawyers to become judges. The opportunity to be the secular equivalent of the right hand of God just isn't what it used to be.
But inflation has hurt a lot of other people -- people who don't have the power, the privilege or the high honor of being federal judges.
Those people will have to be forgiven if they do not cry out in rage at the plight of federal judges who will soon be earning more than $67,000 a year, or, like Harold Greene, getting a combined income from the taxpayers of more than $86,000.
The 12.9 percent pay raise the Supreme Court granted itself and other federal judges last week is only one of two pay hikes the judges are likely to receive. Another 9.1 percent increase is likely to be theirs as well, thanks to a 14-hour delay by President Carter in signing a bill rescinding the smaller raise.
The larger increase resulted from a court decision declaring unconstitutional congressional actions in 1976 and 1979 that blocked cost-of-living pay increases for all high level federal employes, including judges.
The court said the 1976 and 1979 congressional actions were invalid because the pay increases were already in effect for others when Congress forbade them for the judges. As a way of maintaining the judiciary's independence, the Constitution bars reductions in a judge's pay while in office.
Shortly after the court decided to grant the larger raise, several judges who filed the original suit quickly filed another one, demanding the government give them an increase of another 9.1 percent.
In this instance, their case rests on the fact that Carter signed this year's bill rescinding a scheduled 9.1 percent cost-of-living pay increase for all federal employes at about 2 p.m. on Oct. 1. He was 14 hours too late; the increase technically went into effect at midnight the night before.
Based on Burger's decision last week, Carter's tardiness means the action is a reduction of judicial salaries, and that's unconstitutional. It is unlikely the Justice Department will contest the suit. So the effect of the recent decision could mean a total raise of about 23 percent.
That would raise Burger's salary from $75,000 to $92,400, instead of $84,700, as provided by the 12.9 percent increase. Other Supreme Court judges will receive about $87,000 instead of $81,300, while the salaries of District court judges would go up to $67,200 instead of the $61,600 resulting from the other raise.