Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy told senators Wednesday that Congress has neglected judicial pay, harming morale among judges and threatening to undermine judicial independence.

"In more than three decades as a judge, I have not seen my colleagues in the judiciary so dispirited as at the present time," Kennedy said in remarks prepared for delivery to the Senate Judiciary Committee. "The blunt fact is that the past congressional policy with respect to judicial salaries has been one of neglect."

Kennedy picked up on an issue that Chief Justice John Roberts recently called a "constitutional crisis."

Federal district court judges are paid $165,200 annually; appeals court judges make $175,100; associate justices of the Supreme Court earn $203,000; the chief justice gets $212,100.

Those figures are far less than what lawyers at private firms earn. District judges are paid about half that of deans and senior law professors at top schools.

Nineteen federal judges left the bench since the end of 2004, many of them to take higher-paying jobs. Meanwhile, first-year lawyers at leading firms in large cities are earning almost as much as district judges.

"Something is wrong when a judge's law clerk, just one or two years out of law school, has a salary greater than that of the judge or justice he or she served the year before," Kennedy said.

Former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker recently called for a significant pay raise for judges, pointing out that they would be earning $261,000 a year if their salaries had risen at the same pace as U.S. workers generally since 1969.

Legislation languished in Congress in 2006 that would have provided a 16 percent increase in federal judges' salaries.