Federal judges shouldn't be excluded from largess
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist is right when he says that federal judges should receive a pay raise, but not for the reasons he articulated recently in his year-end report on the federal courts. Rehnquist bemoaned what he called the "chasm" that exists between what lawyers can earn at private law firms and as judges, and he issued the following warning: "Our judges will not continue to represent the diverse face of America if only the well-to-do or the mediocre are willing to become judges."
We aren't sold on the idea that to attract the best and the brightest to the federal bench you have to pay bigger bucks. In the words of American University law professor Herman Schwartz, "It's hard to bleed for people earning six figures."
Why, then, do we agree with Rehnquist when makes a pitch for a pay raise for judges? Because it's a matter of fairness and proportionality. Last year, federal judges were excluded from cost-of-living increases that federal employees and members of Congress will receive this month. In other words, the folks on Capitol Hill who haven't exactly been good stewards of the public treasury are rewarding themselves and other federal employees for the work they've done, but they don't believe that federal judges should also be the beneficiaries of this largess.
How are the senators and representatives, the congressional staffers and all the other federal workers better than the members of the federal judiciary? On what basis did Congress decide that cost-of-living increases should go to many, but not all?
If the increases were based on such real-life (in the private sector, at least) measures as job performance and the financial health of the employer, then an honest appraisal of what is taking place in the federal government would lead to the conclusion that a wage freeze is more appropriate. With the budget deficit increasing each month -- it will mushroom if the United States goes to war with Iraq -- and services to taxpayers being provided in a haphazard fashion, there is no justification for members of Congress and federal employees to receive cost-of-living increases.
Likewise, we aren't swayed by the chief justice's contention that judges are overworked and underpaid. Last year, they received 3.4 percent cost-of-living increases, bringing the pay up to $150,000 for federal trial judges, $159,000 for appeals court judges and about $184,000 for Supreme Court justices, except for the chief justice who earns $192,600.
And as with any discussion about public sector compensation, the value of the benefit package -- at least 40 percent of the annual salary -- and the lucrative pension plan should not be ignored. In other words, the people who work for the federal government are doing quite well.
Thus, the issue isn't one of rewarding performance. It's about whether one group of employees is more deserving than another. We think not.
Rather than urging President Bush, and whoever else will listen to him, to increase the salaries of judges, Chief Justice Rehnquist should publicly call on members of Congress to lead the way in giving up the cost-of-living increases for this year.