We Americans are the people of an idea and not of blood or tribe.
We have come from many places and believe many different things. For that reason, we rely less than other nations on the unspoken consensus born of custom and tradition. In their place we have a written Constitution whose principles are elaborated in a dynamic code of law. To foreigners, the legal system through which we interpret that Constitution and enforce those laws often appears baroque and contentious. Sometimes it is. But it also is an historic engine of equality and equity. Faith in our courts and their judges is an essential article in the American creed.
But while judges, particularly federal judges, stand high in the public’s esteem, they rank rather low on the legal profession’s payroll. That is why we support Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist’s recent call for Congress to vote the federal judiciary a 30% raise.
The chief justice made his request at a rare press conference, called after Congress defeated a measure that would have given a 50% pay increase to its members, top officials of the executive branch and federal judges.
Rehnquist, however, made a convincing case for letting a judicial pay increase stand or fall on its own merits. He called the situation urgent, and facts bear him out: Over the past 20 years, inflation has outpaced judicial pay raises by 223%. While federal judicial salaries now range from $89,500 for a district judge to $115,000 for the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, private-sector legal salaries have skyrocketed. Major law firms in Los Angeles currently pay their partners more than half a million dollars a year, and at big city firms across the country, first year lawyers often earn more than $80,000.
Rehnquist argued that the growing gap between judges’ salaries and those of the lawyers who appear before them “poses the most serious threat to the future of the judiciary and its continued operations that I have observed during my lifetime.” He said that without a pay raise, federal judges, who are appointed for life, increasingly may use the bench as a step on the ladder toward lucrative private careers. The American Bar Assn. believes that a quarter of the country’s more than 1,000 federal judges may choose to step down for financial reasons.
This is a telling point, for, as the chief justice pointed out, the federal tradition of lifetime judicial service “gives you a different kind of judge, someone simply devoted to judging rather than looking out of the corner of his eye for the next political opportunity that comes along.”