The judicial branch is rapidly losing its ability to attract and retain top-level staff because it cannot pay as much as the executive and legislative branches, according to a memo prepared for senior U.S. court officials.

The Administrative Office of the United States Courts "is experiencing serious recruitment problems," and courthouses in the larger metropolitan areas also face hiring problems, wrote Leonidas Ralph Mecham, director of the Administrative Office.

In recent months, Mecham said, the Administrative Office lost two employees to higher-paying jobs, a budget chief, who went to the Department of Homeland Security, and a legislative affairs director, who took a position on Capitol Hill.

The number of applicants "for our executive vacancies has dropped significantly," Mecham said. He noted that after the retirement of the Administrative Office's No. 2 finance and budget executive, three applicants for the job decided they didn't want it. One applicant withdrew after learning that the salary was lower than those in the executive branch, and the other two took higher-paying jobs after being interviewed.

"It appears that we can no longer get the seasoned senior executives that we must have if we are to carry out our mission in support of the courts, including securing appropriations and enacting legislation for the entire third branch," Mecham wrote.

Mecham's memo, first reported by the Federal Times, was sent to the chief justice and members of the Judicial Conference of the United States, the policymaking arm of the court system. Mecham's office provides administrators, accountants, statisticians and others who provide professional services to meet the needs of federal judges nationwide.

Pay in the judicial branch has lagged in recent years, partly because Congress has been unwilling to lift a statutory cap on the salaries of federal judges. As a result, salaries of top law school deans and senior law professors are higher than those of District Court judges.

But Congress recently raised the maximum pay for senior executives and others who work in federal agencies, a change that appears to be hindering the ability of the judicial branch to compete for talented professionals.

Federal agencies that comply with requirements of the Office of Personnel Management can pay as much as $208,100 -- the salary of the vice president -- in salaries and bonuses. Without OPM approval, federal agencies can pay a total of $180,100, Mecham said in his memo.

The judicial branch, however, may not pay more than $149,200 in salary to court executives and rarely hands out bonuses, Mecham said.

He also noted that Congress permits higher compensation for some employees, such as committee staff members, who can be paid a top salary of $160,600.

"Without a doubt, the judiciary has lost significant ground in relationship to the other two branches of government," Mecham wrote.

He said he planned to ask an internal resources committee to consider a proposal that would allow executive salaries to rise in higher-cost cities as a step toward addressing equity issues raised by higher executive and legislative branch salaries.

Retirements

Frances Cofield, director of the office of procurement operations at the Internal Revenue Service, will retire June 30 after 27 years of federal service. She started in government as a presidential management intern and worked at the General Services Administration and the Treasury Department.

Theodore S. Sherr, senior level adviser for international nuclear waste and material safety activities at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, will retire Friday after nearly 38 years of government service. He was appointed to the Senior Executive Service in 1979 as a charter member. He served for five years in Vienna, Austria, as a senior Foreign Service officer, and for eight years as the U.S. member on an advisory group supporting the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Diary Live

Please join me for a discussion of federal employee and retiree issues at noon today on Federal Diary Live at www.washingtonpost.com.

E-mail: barrs@washpost.com