Here is an interesting article that was just published in the federaltimes about the issue of pay for the federal judiciary. It says it all:



H.L. Mencken said happiness is making more than your wife's sister's husband. Is unhappiness making less than your granddaughter or her husband, if they happen to be new lawyers? If it is, federal judges must be very unhappy.

Federal judges are the enforcers of the Constitution and protectors of our civil rights, entrusted with power to overrule the president and declare Congress' laws void. But they are paid less than the most inexperienced, first-year lawyer at a big law firm.

It's a scandal, and it's not about money - a decent raise for federal judges would not even register as a nano-percent of the federal budget - but about politics. Judges' salaries are tethered to congressional salaries, and lawmakers are afraid to raise their own salaries, lest their vote become an election issue.

Over the past 40 years, workers' wages, adjusted for inflation, have risen 17.8 percent. During that same period, federal judges' real pay has declined 23.9 percent. Even the cost of living adjustments most federal workers received were denied to judges in 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1999 and 2007.

In the federal government today, many professional positions in the executive branch now qualify for salaries far above what district judges are paid. Such federal employees can receive total compensation exceeding $200,000 annually, far more than the $169,300 a district judge receives.

Why should anyone care what federal judges make, and whether or not they feel respected by the society they serve? One reason is that we want the best, most empathetic, most even-handed, and most intelligent to serve as our judges. We don't want our most important rights guarded by underpaid, disrespected, demoralized judges, who have to struggle to send their kids to college, nor do we want as judges only those already rich enough to work for pay many times less than what they could earn as a lawyer, mediator or arbitrator.

Fortunately, bipartisan legislation is pending in Congress that would restore fairness to judicial compensation and provide judges with their first pay increase in nearly 20 years. The bill is supported by a cross section of leaders, including our own Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senator Diane Feinstein, and Representatives Anna Eshoo, Zoe Lofgren and George Miller. Support comes from a broad coalition of organized labor, civil rights organizations, environmental groups, corporate and national business organizations.

HR 3753 passed both the House and Senate Judiciary Committees months ago. Yet the full Congress has failed to act. Some members of Congress are holding it up, in an effort to keep judges' pay tied to congressional salaries. But the fact that Congress, rightly skittish about how it is perceived, cannot raise salaries for its members doesn't mean it should drag the federal judiciary down with it.

The leaders of Congress need to seize this opportunity to authorize a minuscule budget expenditure that will free federal judges from the financial shackles of politics and restore the dignity, independence and respect due the federal judiciary. Otherwise, the best will eschew judgeships, leaving justice in the hands of the second-rate, the ideologues, and the wealthy.

Long ago, the Chinese Emperor K'Ang-Hsi (1662-1723), fearing that lawsuits would increase if people were not afraid of the courts, said: "I desire . . . that those who have recourse to the tribunal should be treated without pity, and in such a manner that they shall be disgusted with law, and tremble to come before a magistrate." If Congress does not act now, that may be where we end up.


John W. Keker is a lawyer in San Francisco.