The nation's federal judges have been on the front line in the war against inflation far too long, Chief Justice Warren E. Burger said in his 11th "year-end report" to Congress and the public, which was released today.
Budget deficits notwithstanding, Burger wants the judges to get another raise lest too many qualified lawyers turn down judicial job offers.
It may seem that the battle-weary District Court judges earn a decent income at $76,000 a year. But Burger argues that their real income has dropped by one-third in the past 15 years. Trial judges in 1969 earned $40,000. The $76,000 they earn now, when it is adjusted for inflation, is worth only $26,828, he said.
Average family income has "held its own with inflation," Burger said, and attorneys in private practice have "substantially bested" inflation. "Only the judiciary, Congress and presidential appointees have been denied fair adjustment to meet inflation -- an unseemly, unjust result."
What's more, this fact of judicial life may even be unconstitutional, he says. Article III of the Constitution, Burger points out in a footnote, says judges' pay "shall not be diminished during their continuance in office."
Burger, the highest-paid jurist in the country, earns $104,700. His colleagues on the court earn $100,600. Federal appeals court judges earn $80,400.
Looking back over the year, Burger praised Congress' decision to add the 75 district and appellate judgeships he had sought, and to shore up the Bankruptcy Court system, at least for the moment, without giving bankruptcy judges the lifetime tenure that federal judges enjoy.
Burger's new "wish list" includes steps to reduce the caseload both in his court and in the federal system. For starters, Burger wants the Supreme Court to have virtually total control over its own caseload by limiting the cases it is required by law to review.
He also proposed that Congress establish a temporary Intercircuit Tribunal of judges who would resolve conflicts on legal questions among the 13 circuit courts. Burger also proposed eliminating "diversity" cases, in which lawsuits involving people from different states are heard in the federal courts.
The historical reason for "diversity of citizenship jurisdiction has vanished with the increasing mobility of our society," Burger said, arguing that the cases belong in the state courts.
Burger also encouraged the news media to "serve the public" by reporting whenever judges fine lawyers and plaintiffs for filing frivolous suits or for unseemly pretrial delays or abuses. Judges are becoming more willing to deal strongly with erring lawyers, Burger said. GO WEST, YOUNG MAN . . .
Speaking of judicial salaries, a recent survey of state courts shows judges who want to make some money had best head west. California's Supreme Court justices earned the highest salaries, $88,818 a year. Trial judges there receive $72,763, second only to Alaska's trial judges, who earn nearly $74,000.
Maryland's highest court judges rank 11th among the states, pulling down $68,200 a year. Maryland trial court judges rank seventh nationwide at $63,300. Virginia's highest court judges rank 15th at $67,540, with trial judges ranking eighth at $62,780.
The pay of judges in the District of Columbia's courts is set at 90 percent of the pay received by their federal counterparts. D.C. Superior Court judges, who were not ranked in the National Center for State Courts' recent survey, receive $68,400 a year, which would put them fifth nationwide. D.C. Court of Appeals judges earn $72,360, putting them just ahead of judges on Maryland's top court.
Appellate judges who don't care what they get paid might try Maine, which currently ranks at the bottom at $44,431. Equally altruistic trial judges might try Michigan, where salaries are as low as $40,700. OPEN-DOOR POLICY? . . .
Supreme Court Justices Harry A. Blackmun and William H. Rehnquist appeared last Saturday on ABC-TV, which interviewed them for a show on the high court. Compared to his colleagues, Blackmun is an old television hand, having appeared once before on a Cable News Network program.
But for Rehnquist, the show marked his first television appearance since he became a justice 13 years ago.
Was this the beginning of a new era of openness, one reporter asked.
The word came back from Rehnquist's chambers: "No comment." AGE ISSUE . . .
The November elections brought little change to the Senate Judiciary Committee as Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) decided to hang on to his chairmanship. The committee's chief counsel, Emory M. Sneeden, recently left to take a seat on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond. The appointment of Sneeden, 57, ran counter to the Reagan administration's general policy of appointing judges in their 40s. However, Sneeden followed the path of his predecessor, who moved from the committee staff to the federal bench.
At a recent farewell party for Sneeden, Thurmond, 82, gave a short speech and was asked whether he would run again in 1990.
Quipped Thurmond: "It would all depend on my wife's health." His wife, Nancy, is 38.