Outside editorials: The value of a judge is more than Congress has been willing to pay

Posted: Thursday, December 13, 2007

Last month, Judge Paul G. Cassell gave up his prestigious lifetime appointment to the U.S. District Court for the District of Utah, explaining that "two primary factors have led me to do something that I never thought possible - leaving this important public service position." The first, Mr. Cassell explained in his resignation letter to President Bush, was the opportunity to return to academia and continue work as an advocate for victims of crime.

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The second involved money. "I would be less than completely candid if I did not mention the uncertainty surrounding judicial pay as a factor in my decision," Mr. Cassell wrote. "With three talented children approaching college years, it has been difficult for my wife and me to make financial plans."

No one can seriously argue that federal trial judges' salaries of $165,200 constitute poverty wages; most households bring in considerably less and yet manage to meet their financial demands, including educating children. There's also no guarantee that a hefty raise would keep judges from bolting to the private sector, where they can dramatically increase their earnings. But federal judges have not had a pay increase for almost two decades; today, both law professors and young private-sector lawyers consistently out-earn federal judges.

The lag in judicial salaries has affected the demographics of the bench. Only 40 percent of sitting federal judges come from the private sector - a dramatic change from the 1950s, when lawyers experienced in the real-world workings of the courts made up the majority of federal judges. In the future, as Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. argued in January, it will be even more likely that only those who've already made a fortune or those who are less experienced - and for whom a federal judicial salary constitutes a raise - will agree to serve.

A Senate bill, scheduled for debate on Thursday, would increase by 50 percent the salaries of federal trial judges, to $247,800; other federal judges, including justices of the Supreme Court, would get commensurate raises. Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., wants to cap the pay increase at 16.5 percent.

A House bill that is scheduled to be taken up Wednesday by the Judiciary Committee has the most reasonable and defensible approach. That bill calculates what judicial salaries would have been today if judges had received regular cost-of-living adjustments since 1969. The result would be a salary of $233,500 - or a 41 percent increase - for a trial judge. The bill would also guarantee annual cost-of-living adjustments - a provision that should be included even if lawmakers negotiate a different baseline salary.

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