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Federal judges call for higher pay

  Legal Careers News  -   POSTED: 2008/12/28 17:09

Earlier this year, Martin Jenkins took what looked like a step down the career ladder. Jenkins traded his lifetime appointment as a federal trial judge for a seat on a California state appeals court.

In his new job, Jenkins must periodically face the voters, but he reaped one immediate benefit — a 20 percent jump in his annual salary.

Jenkins' case highlights what Chief Justice John Roberts and many other federal judges have identified as an emerging crisis — the failure to pay judges enough to keep them on the job and lure talented lawyers from private practice to the federal bench.

Not everyone sees it the way Roberts does. Committees in the House and Senate this year voted nearly 30 percent salary hikes for federal judges, but neither house of Congress acted on the measure.

Judges last received a substantial pay raise in 1991, although they have been given increases designed to keep pace with inflation in most years since then.

For 2009, though, judges are alone among federal workers — members of Congress included — in not getting a cost-of-living adjustment. Lawmakers get their COLA (cost-of-living allowance) automatically — $4,700 for 2009 — but they refused to authorize the same 2.8 percent bump for judges.

"Federal judges are currently under-compensated because Congress has repeatedly failed to adjust judicial salaries in response to inflation," said James C. Duff, director of the Administrative Office of the U.S Courts. "By its failure to do so once again, Congress only exacerbates a long-standing problem it must someday address."

Duff acknowledged that the current economic turmoil makes the judges' case harder. After all, federal trial judges are paid $169,300 a year, have lifetime job security and can retire at full salary at age 65 if they have 15 years in the job. Appellate judges make more, ranging up to Roberts' salary of $217,400.

But those salaries, large as they are, are much smaller than what judges' peers make in private practice. Attorney General-designate Eric Holder said his partnership at the law firm of Covington & Burling earned him $2.1 million this year. Attorney General Michael Mukasey, who retired as a federal judge in 2006 after 18 years, made nearly $2 million in 21 months at a New York law firm.


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