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WASHINGTON-The erosion of federal judicial salaries continues to be a thorny problem, according to a recent study by the Government Accountability Office, which looked at pay rates for judges and executive branch officials from 1970 to 2006. The GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, reported that the basic pay rates for all of the examined federal pay plans increased in “nominal” dollars, or amounts not adjusted for inflation, from 1970 to 2006. But when adjusted for inflation to 2006 dollars using the Consumer Price Index, the GAO said, the pay rates for federal judges and justices decreased 20% to 34%. The GAO conducted its analysis for the House Committee on Government Reform’s federal workforce and agency organization subcommittee. Help on the way? Two identical bills addressing the pay problem were introduced last spring in the House and Senate: H.R. 1514, sponsored by Representative Adam Schiff, D-Calif., and S. 2276, sponsored by Senator Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. The bills would give federal judges a 16.5% pay increase, which was recommended three years ago by a special national commission. The legislation would also terminate the linkage between judicial cost-of-living increases and those for members of Congress, and give judges automatic cost-of-living increases (COLAs) based on the Employee Cost Index whenever General Schedule federal employees are entitled to receive them. The American Bar Association, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and others have endorsed the bills. “After factoring in bonuses, first-year associates may receive more compensation than some federal judges and many state court judges, all of whom were experienced lawyers before they joined the bench,” said Lisa Rickard, president of the U.S. Chamber’s Institute for Legal Reform. “It is in every citizen’s best interest to ensure that these public servants receive compensation that is commensurate with the vital work they are doing.” The primary problem with how judicial salaries are set is the linkage, by law, of judicial salaries to the salaries of members of Congress, according to Rickard and others. Congress also has the power under Section 140 of Public Law No. 107-77 to block judicial COLAs even when it accepts COLAs for its own members. Under Section 140, no judicial COLA can take effect without specific authorization by Congress. Judges have been denied COLAs in five of the last 13 years that Congress voted to deny themselves one. Judges did receive a 2.2% COLA in fiscal 2004, 2.5% in 2005 and 1.9% in 2006. The legislation sponsored by Schiff and Feinstein would repeal Section 140. In 2003, a report by the National Commission on the Public Service (the Volcker Commission), urged Congress to enact “an immediate and substantial increase in judicial salaries,” since “the potential for the diminished quality in American jurisprudence is now too large.” A spokesman for Feinstein said her bill is unlikely to move this year. A ‘touchy issue’ “The de-linkage issue is a very, very touchy issue with Congress,” said Denise Cardman, deputy director for government affairs at the ABA. “First, there are what they believe are true equity concerns and, second, raising their pay through the mechanism of raising judicial pay provides them with some insulation from public criticism over raising their own pay.” Although the outlook for the Feinstein and Schiff bills is bleak, Cardman said there is talk among lawmakers about reviving the idea of a commission or some entity to regularly review judicial and/or other government salaries and make recommendations as was done two decades ago. “Even if judges got a pay raise now, if there is no mechanism to review the adequacy of salaries in three or four years, salaries could slip again in comparison to economic markers,” explained Cardman. “It doesn’t solve the problem if you don’t have some entity to regularly review the adequacy of pay.”

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