A coalition of federal judges has prevailed in a pay dispute with Congress by taking the fight to the place they know best: the courts.

The judges won a lawsuit they filed against the U.S. government that demanded cost-of-living pay increases for roughly 1,000 members of the federal judiciary. The suit contended that the judges were entitled to reasonable pay raises under the Constitution and the Ethics Reform Act of 1989.

U.S. District Judge John Garrett Penn agreed in a 24-page opinion released Thursday, noting that Article III of the Constitution guarantees that salaries of federal judges "shall not be diminished" during their lifetime tenures. Penn said Alexander Hamilton and other founders wanted to ensure the independence and competence of federal judges by providing fair salaries.

The judge ruled that he and his colleagues are entitled to automatic cost-of-living increases under the Ethics Reform Act, a measure that set up a new pay scale and severely limited their opportunities to earn outside income. The law requires that judges receive cost-of-living increases whenever salaries are adjusted for other federal government personnel, Penn said. "This Court concludes that history, precedent and the law can lead to only one result," Penn wrote, ordering that judges be given a set of pay raises and additional compensation for lost earnings during the past five years.

Penn's ruling would boost the pay of all federal judges by nearly 10 percent to cover the cost-of-living amounts they should have been paid in recent years. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist's salary would rise, for example, to $192,500, up from $175,400. Other Supreme Court justices would be paid $184,100, up from $167,900. Federal appellate judges would get $159,100 a year, up from $145,000; and district judges would get $150,000, up from $136,700.

The Clinton administration took the position that Congress must approve any pay hikes. Although most federal employees have received steady cost-of-living boosts, Congress has not approved any for judges or other high-level government employees in four of the last five years, leading to the judges' suit. The judges received only one adjustment, a 2.3 percent increase in 1998.

Justice Department officials declined to comment on Penn's ruling and said they had not determined whether to appeal.

Spencer Williams, a senior federal judge from San Francisco and the lead plaintiff in the case, contended that highly qualified lawyers will shun judicial careers rather than risk the potential of seeing salaries erode. He and other judges contended that the real dollar value of their salaries has dropped by more than $22,000 since 1993. Nineteen other federal judges joined in the lawsuit, including U.S. District Judge Aubrey E. Robinson Jr., a senior trial judge in Washington. Numerous bar associations backed the judges.

"The real beneficiary of an independent judiciary is the public, not the judges," said Kevin M. Forde, a Chicago lawyer who represented the plaintiffs, adding that the quality of justice will suffer unless the pay goes up.