WASHINGTON – Joining the many who felt shortchanged by 2008 are U.S. federal judges.
They were the only federal employees who did not receive a cost-of-living pay increase. And in December, they lost out when a bill before Congress to raise their salaries significantly was dropped during the debate over the proposed auto-industry bailout.
In his fourth year-end report on the federal judiciary, Chief Justice John Roberts acknowledged he has been repeating himself.
“I suspect many are tired of hearing it, and I know I am tired of saying it, but I must make this plea again: Congress must provide judicial compensation that keeps pace with inflation,” he said. “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.”
Thanks to a quirk in federal law, judges do not receive the automatic pay increase that goes to other federal employees. Six times over the past 15 years, judges did not receive the routine cost-of-living increase for federal employees, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.
As the chief justice of the United States, Roberts is the leader of the federal judiciary, as well as the Supreme Court. Midway through 2008, he expressed optimism that Congress would restore the lost cost-of-living increases for judges. Both the House and Senate had approved bills that would have increased judicial salaries by about 28 percent. But when the stock market plunged in September, lawmakers hesitated to pass the pay increase for the judiciary. The bills died in the final days of the congressional session.
U.S. district judges earned $169,300 in 2008, and U.S. appeals court judges earned $179,500. At the Supreme Court, the eight associate jus- tices were paid $208,100, and the chief justice $217,400.
Roberts said the federal judiciary is a relative bargain. The total appropriation for the federal courts system was $6.2 billion in 2008, he said. “That represents a mere two-tenths of 1 percent of the United States’ total $3 trillion budget. Two-tenths of 1 percent,” he wrote.
He said the judiciary “is committed to spending its tiny share of the federal budget responsibly. But courts cannot preserve their vitality simply by following a non-fat regimen. The judiciary must also continue to attract judges who are the best of the best.”