The House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday approved a bill that would give federal judges their first pay raise in two decades, pushing them to the fore of federal earners.
The bill, passed by a 28-5 vote, also would increase the workload for senior judges, raise the retirement age for full pension and discourage retired judges from taking work in the private sector. The vote margin suggests the bill's prospects are good, but the full House is unlikely take up the legislation before the end of the year.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to review a similar bill today.
Under the Federal Judicial Salary Restoration Act of 2007, federal district judges would earn $218,000 annually, uncoupling them from members of Congress, who make $165,200 a year.
Federal appeals judges would earn $231,000; Supreme Court associate justices $267,900; and the chief justice $279,900.
Federal judicial pay has remained virtually the same since the 1980s, while private attorneys have seen their salaries swell. The bill's supporters were keen to point out that federal district judges, at $165,200 a year, are often paid less than first-year associates at prestigious firms.
As a result, federal judgeships have lost a measure of their allure, and judges are leaving for higher-paying jobs, Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., a co-sponsor of the bill, said at the committee hearing. "The federal judiciary should not be a steppingstone to a high-paying career. It's the capstone of a great career."
To that effect, the bill would tax retired judges who are collecting a federal pension while earning large salaries in private jobs.
"We thought that might be taking advantage of a situation for much greener pastures," said Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, the committee's ranking member.
For every $2 they made over their salary as a federal judge, $1 would be cut from their pension. The bill would also increase senior judges' workload from three months a year to four months a year and require 17 years of service before a judge could retire with a full pension.
The bill's detractors warned that the pay increases would give the perception that the judiciary is somehow above the other two branches of the federal government.
"The reason it doesn't pass the smell test is if you serve in one coequal branch of the government, you will be paid significantly more than those serving in the other coequal branches," said Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., R-Wis., who voted against the bill.
"Is the position of federal judge one of greater responsibility than a member of the president's Cabinet ... or a member of Congress?"
Rep. Louis Gohmert, R-Texas, warned fellow Republicans of the political pitfalls of that argument.
"It's easier to get liberals who are not making anything" to fill the judgeships than capable conservatives who sniff at the pay, he said. "That's not as tongue-in-cheek as you might think."