A group of federal judges, much to the dismay of Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, has proposed organizing the federal judiciary into a Federal Judges Association to lobby for higher salaries and fringe benefits.
The judges are not calling their proposed organization a union. Nevertheless, the effort is controversial because it represents the first time judges have gone outside their officially sanctioned organizational structure, the Judicial Conference.
Burger has expressed his "strong disapproval" of the organizing effort and has asked the judges to stop it. One of the organizers said yesterday, however, that they would continue the movement.
The call to organize was made in a letter May 29 to all federal judges from two U.S. District Court judges in California, Samuel Conti and Spencer Williams. Eight other judges from around the country are part of the organizing group.
The Williams-Conti letter called for creation of the Federal Judges Association, complete with $200 dues and a possible "Washington coordinator." aJudges would be asked to contact their "friends" in Congress to seek "such friends' support" for legislation benefiting the judges.
The letter said judges appreciate the work of the chief justice and others to improve salaries. But it said that not enough has been achieved and that judges now must pursue "their own solution."
A spokesman for Burger said yesterday that the chief justice had received the letter and responded by communicating "his strong disapproval" of the proposed program.
"The chief justice emphasized that the Judicial Conference of the United States is the statutory body authorized to express the views of the federal judiciary," a statement from Burger said. "Ad hoc programs of the kind which is here proposed are neither appropriate nor useful."
U.S. District Court judges are paid $67,100 annually, and appeals court judges receive $70,000.
The judges have argued for several years that their pay levels have not kept pace with inflation and are far below amounts they could be earning in private law practice, where pay in prestigious firms can soar into six figures. Several judges have resigned from the bench, citing salary and fringe benefit levels.
Current salaries are lower than those recommended last year by a federal pay commission that reviews all U.S. salaries. But they would have been lower if the Supreme Court had not held last December that previous congressional actions withholding raises for the judges were unconstitutional. The suit that led to the decision was brought by Illinois Federal Judge Hubert L. Will, who is part of the organizing committee.
The Williams-Conti letter said that the decision gave Congress a "road map on how to frustrate future pay increases. We cannot reasonably hope that such action, if taken [in the future] will not be vulnerable to judicial review."
The letter followed a survey of all 753 federal judges distributed by Conti. Of the 332 responses, the letter said, 299 judges favored a "self-help" program for the bench.
Williams said yesterday that he considered the response "very enthusiastic."
Asked if the program would continue despite Burger's objections, he said:
"Sure. We're trying to be helpful. We're not fighting with the chief."
Burger's spokesman said the chief justice was "well aware that the purchasing power of federal judges is one-third less than in 1969 and that the frustration of judges is understandable."
The judges say they hope to pattern their organization on the California Judges Association, a group of state judges that participates in lobbying and public relations, and holds meetings and conventions for judges.
They hope to include a district or appeals judge from each of the country's judicial circuits as members of a board.
The Washington coordinator, the letter said, "would keep us informed of the progress of various bills in which we are interested, determining who are the key congressmen involved, matching these congressmen with the indicated judges and, where necessary, having the matched judges brought to Washington at the appropriate time (and at the organization's expense) to discuss the bill with their congressmen."