WASHINGTON — Chief Justice John Roberts said Wednesday that Congress should be as generous to judges as it already has been to itself, by approving an inflation-related increase in their pay.
"I must renew the judiciary's modest petition: Simply provide cost-of-living increases that have been unfairly denied," Roberts said in his annual year-end report on the federal judiciary.
Alone among federal employees, judges will not receive a cost-of-living allowance in 2009. Members of Congress are getting a 2.8 percent boost, worth $4,700. But they refused before Christmas to give an identical increase to judges.
Federal trial judges are paid $169,300 a year. Appellate judges make more, ranging up to Roberts' salary of $217,400. The salaries pale in comparison to what top lawyers earn in private practice.
Judges paid less than law professors
Roberts also has pointed out that the 678 full-time trial judges who form the backbone of the federal judiciary are paid about half that of deans and senior law professors at top schools.
But the job has its advantages: Judges have lifetime job security and can retire at full salary at age 65 if they have 15 years on the bench.
Judges last received a substantial pay raise in 1991, although they have been given increases designed to keep pace with inflation in most years since then.
On the six occasions before now that lawmakers denied judges a COLA, they also declined one for themselves.
It had been a long-standing practice for members of Congress and district judges to make the same salaries. Under ethics legislation enacted almost two decades ago, members of Congress get a cost-of-living raise automatically, but they have to vote to give judges an identical raise.
"Judges knew what the pay was when they answered the call of public service. But they did not know that Congress would steadily erode that pay in real terms by repeatedly failing over the years to provide even cost-of-living increases," Roberts said.
The chief justice also lamented Congress' failure to pass larger salary hikes for judges. Committees in the House and Senate voted nearly 30 percent increases for federal judges, but neither house of Congress acted on the measure.
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A gentler tone this year
In prior reports, Roberts has focused on the need for the larger increase, which would take his pay to around $280,000 a year and increase trial judges' annual salaries to $218,000.
Two years ago, he said pay for federal judges is so inadequate that it threatens to undermine the judiciary's independence.
This year's version employs a gentler tone. The report takes account of the economic downturn and evokes the Smithsonian Institution's recent repair and preservation of the American flag that flew over Fort McHenry during an attack by the British in 1814. The flag was the inspiration for the national anthem.
"The flag bears scars from the pitched battle, but it also shows blemishes, regrettably, from later neglect," said Roberts, who also is the Smithsonian's chancellor.
Likewise, he wrote, "the judiciary's needs cannot be postponed indefinitely without damaging its fabric."
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