Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, addressing a rare press conference, warned Wednesday that the caliber of the judiciary will deteriorate unless Congress moves quickly to raise the salaries of federal judges.
The large and growing gap between a judge’s salary and the incomes of lawyers in private practice “poses the most serious threat to the future of the judiciary and its continued operations that I have observed during my lifetime,” said Rehnquist, who heads the nearly 800-member federal judiciary.
Last month, Congress voted down a 50% pay raise for its members, top executive officials and federal judges. Without touching on the issue of salary raises for Congress, Rehnquist said that the judiciary needs a 30% salary increase.
Since 1969, inflation has reduced an average judge’s pay by more than 30% and the number of judges leaving to take other jobs is increasing, he said.
Federal judges are appointed for life and traditionally stay on the bench until they can work no more. That tradition and the unique status of the federal judiciary is in jeopardy, Rehnquist said.
If the pay scales are not raised, U.S. judges may use their positions merely as a steppingstone to advance subsequent careers in private practice or politics, the chief justice said. In many states, judges often serve on the bench for five or 10 years, then return to private practice and are thereafter “referred to as judge,” Rehnquist said.
By contrast, the tradition of lifelong service in the federal judiciary “gives you a different kind of judge, someone simply devoted to judging rather than looking out the corner of your eye for the next political opportunity that comes along.”
The 576 federal trial judges are now paid $89,500 a year. A 30% raise would lift their pay to $116,300 a year. The 168 federal appellate judges earn $95,000 and would be getting $123,500. Supreme Court justices, other than Rehnquist, earn $110,000 and would get $143,000. The chief justice now earns $115,000, and 30% more would increase his salary to $149,500.
Although conceding that most Americans would see those as ample salaries, the chief justice pointed out that only experienced and respected lawyers are appointed to the federal bench. And, in many big cities, such lawyers earn more than $300,000 a year.
“I don’t know any judges who are in it for the money. They’d have to be out of their minds” if that were their main reason for holding a judgeship, Rehnquist said. Nevertheless, the judiciary should be able to “offer them enough so they can educate their kids.”
Many judges earn extra money by teaching law school classes, but “judging shouldn’t be a job where you have to moonlight,” Rehnquist added.