Bar Bulletin

July, 2003

MSBA News

MSBA Backs Hike in Pay for Federal Judges
~Supports Legislation to Boost Salaries~
By Janet Stidman Eveleth

Federal legislation to increase the salaries of federal judges by 16.5 percent has gained the support of the Maryland State Bar Association. In recent decades, the salaries of federal judges have significantly eroded. To protect and support the federal judiciary, one of our nation’s greatest assets, MSBA has joined the American Bar Association and other state bars as advocates for a substantial raise in pay for federal judges so the high quality and independence of our federal judiciary may be preserved.

Today, federal judicial compensation is far from adequate. Federal judges are all experienced attorneys who perform a vital function in advancing the rule of law and upholding Constitutional principles. However, they are not equitably compensated for fulfilling this vital and invaluable role. Thus, the organized Bar has joined forces to call for judicial pay reform which would substantially increase federal judicial salaries.

According to the ABA, “the compensation paid to our federal district court judges has declined by 23.5 percent in real dollars since 1969.” Nor have federal judges received a cost of living increase in five of the last 10 years. As a result, many federal judges are leaving the federal bench and many qualified lawyers are declining appointment considerations. This trend poses serious consequences to our rule of law and threatens our nation’s federal judiciary.

The departure rate of federal judges in recent years is alarming. Between 1990 and April 2003, 77 federal judges either resigned or retired. While 16 retired, 51 left for private practice. In the last 28 months, the ABA reports that 22 federal judges have resigned. This is an alarming national trend, and it is largely attributed to the current level of judicial compensation.

Unfortunately, although federal judicial compensation is insufficient, it is still much higher than compensation to state judges. MSBA supports an increase in judicial compensation for Maryland judges, too. “Our state judges merit a significant increase in salary,” states J. Michael Conroy, Jr., MSBA’s Secretary and a member of Maryland’s Judicial Compensation Commission. While not speaking for the Commission, he added, “At the present time, there is a sizeable discrepancy between federal and state judicial salaries. MSBA fully supports a boost in pay for federal judges and for state judges. There is no meaningful reason why such a compensation gap exists, and the gap will widen once the proposed legislation is enacted.”

At its June meeting, MSBA’s Board of Governors endorsed bipartisan legislation, now pending in the Senate and the House, which would provide a 16.5 percent salary increase for federal judges. This proposal has the strong support of U.S. President George W. Bush but is unlikely to be enacted unless Congress is convinced that it has broad public support.

“Inadequate compensation seriously compromises the judicial independence fostered by life tenure,” proclaimed Chief Judge William H. Rehnquist, during his 2002 Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary. “That low salaries might force judges to return to the private sector rather than stay on the bench risks affecting judicial performance – instead of serving for life, those judges would serve the term their finances would allow.”

“We do not want experienced judges to leave because they cannot afford to put their children through college or because their salaries are eaten away by inflation,” Rehnquist continued. “Every time an experienced judge leaves the bench, the nation suffers a temporary loss in judicial productivity...Our system cannot tolerate the regular loss of experienced, seasoned judges now occurring.”

“Diminishing judicial salaries also affects the pool of those willing to be considered for a position on the federal bench,” he adds. “Many of the best lawyers, those with a great deal of experience, are not willing to accept a position knowing that their salary will not even keep pace with inflation.”

“Our judges will not continue to represent the diverse face of America if only the well-to-do or the mediocre are willing to become judges,” he concludes. “We need judges from different backgrounds and we want them to stay for life.”

Thus, MSBA and many others in the organized Bar support the Administration and Congressional co-sponsors seeking to reverse a decade of salary neglect by endorsing legislation that will provide judges with a 16.5 percent salary increase to restore judicial salaries to equitable and adequate levels. This nation’s independent federal judges, some of its most valuable resources, must be preserved to safeguard our country’s rule of law.

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