The president didn't get a pay raise yesterday. The vice president and members of congress didn't get one. Several thousand senior federal bureaucrats didn't get a raise either.
But federal judges and Supreme Court justices, assisted by their own interpretation of the Constitution, may get theirs.
Chief Justice Warren E. Burger could become the first public official outside the White House to earn more than $100,000 a year. With a 4 percent cost-of-living raise, the other justices' salaries would rise to $96,720 and the salaries of U.S. District Court Judges would go up to $73,112.
Other high-level federal employes are blocked from receiving raises by a cap Congress put on their salaries in the stopgap federal money measure passed yesterday, even though, technically, the raises took effect at midnight Thursday, before work on the legislation was completed.
Federal judges were in the same postion as those employes, except that when their raises took effect at midnight Thursday it was more than a technicality.
Their good fortune comes from a 1981 Supreme Court decision, U.S. vs. Will, interpreting the Constitution to say that a pay cap after the bewitching hour would constitute a pay cut for judges. And, as all lawyers know, it is unconstitutional to cut the pay of sitting federal judges and Supreme Court justices.
Whether the judiciary will get the new raises is a matter of confusion, however. Last year's similar continuing budget resolution included a provision designed to keep them from getting raises.
But court officials were uncertain yesterday whether that provision had survived past midnight Thursday. They speculated that the uncertainty would ultimately have to be resolved by the federal judges and the Supreme Court justices.
President Reagan welcomed the nine justices of the Supreme Court back to town yesterday, in a revival of a traditional meeting at the beginning of the October court term. Though the event was ceremonial, Reagan's words seemed pointed, coming at a time when conservatives are trying to strip the court of some of its independence and some public officials are disregarding the court's school-prayer rulings.
The Supreme Court is "the only group of men, and now of men and women, in history that has exercised such significant authority over such a long period of time without having need for battalions of fighting men to enforce its decisions," Reagan said at a luncheon in the White House state dining room. "I think it's a healthy reflection of the fact that the vast majority of our citizens respect and abide by the decisions of the judiciary as a matter of course."
Reagan noted that it was "rumored that presidents may sometimes disagree with particular Supreme Court decisions." But he said that "there can be no disagreement" that the court "must continue to demonstrate the independence and intregity that have been its hallmark."