WASHINGTON – In his first year-end assessment of the federal judiciary, Chief Justice John Roberts urged Congress to increase judicial pay to help keep good judges on the bench and to recruit new ones.
Roberts, who succeeded the late William Rehnquist, warned Congress that judges' pay is an issue that is driving them off the bench and deterring qualified lawyers from throwing their names into consideration for judgeships.
"A strong and independent judiciary is not something that, once established, maintains itself," Roberts wrote. "It is instead a trust that every generation is called upon to preserve, and the values it secures can be lost as readily through neglect as direct attack."
In many of his 19 year-end reports, Rehnquist put judicial pay raises at the top of his wish list for Congress' consideration, once noting wryly that he realized he was "beating a dead horse."
The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts reported recently that pay rates beginning Jan. 1 are $175,100 for circuit judges, $165,200 for district judges, and $151,984 for bankruptcy and full-time magistrate judges. Rates for members of the Supreme Court are $212,100 for the chief justice and $203,000 for associate justices.
Roberts opened his report on the federal courts by insisting that he didn't want to seem presumptuous after just three months on the job. But, like Rehnquist, he did not mince words on the pay issue and called it a "direct threat to judicial independence."
He said judges are leaving the bench in greater numbers than ever before, compared to the 1960s when only a handful of federal judges retired or resigned. Since 1990, he said, 92 judges have left the bench, 59 of them to go into more lucrative private practice. In the past five years, 37 judges have left, nine of them last year, Roberts said.
Real pay for judges has declined substantially, the chief justice said. "If Congress gave judges a raise of 30 percent tomorrow, judges would — after adjusting for inflation — be making about what judges made in 1969," he wrote. "This is not fair to our nation's federal judges and should not be allowed to continue."
Roberts said judges understand the difficult funding choices Congress must make. "But the courts play an essential role in ensuring that we live in a society governed by the rule of law," he wrote. "In order to preserve the independence of our courts, we must ensure that the judiciary is provided the tools to do the job."
The chief justice also asked Congress to help the judiciary ward off its landlord, the General Services Administration. Roberts said the courts spent 16 percent of its 2005 budget on rent, while the Justice Department paid only 3 percent of its budget to the GSA.
In fiscal year 2005, Roberts said, the judiciary paid $926 million to GSA in rent. The GSA's actual cost for providing space to the courts was only $426 million, he said.
It is unfair for the courts to pay more than other agencies, Roberts said. "The federal judiciary cannot continue to serve as a profit center for GSA," he said.
Roberts also urged Congress to pay for increased security for judges, noting the murders in early 2005 of the mother and husband of a federal judge in Chicago.
The year-end report showed that the Supreme Court's docket continues to decrease while federal courts across the nation are experiencing record increases.
Bankruptcy filings skyrocketed to nearly 1.8 million, largely because of the rush to beat a new law that went into effect this year that limits such cases, he said.
Filings in the appellate courts rose 9 percent to an all-time high of more than 68,000 in 2005. Roberts said the numbers would have been higher if Hurricane Katrina hadn't disrupted operations at the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Court of Appeals in September.