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Federal judges are on the brink of their first pay raise in more than 15 years, but higher wages could mean tighter restrictions on judicial gifts and steeper financial disclosure requirements. A bill approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee last week would tether a 29 percent salary increase to new limits on the amount judges could be reimbursed for attending most seminars and events, including those sponsored by public and private universities. And, like members of Congress, judges would have to itemize travel and lodging reimbursements for public review. In the same Jan. 31 meeting, the committee approved the nomination of Mark Filip, a U.S. district judge in Chicago, to fill the Justice Department’s No. 2 spot. A spokesman for Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) said last week that he may delay Filip’s nomination on the Senate floor until Attorney General Michael Mukasey answers several oversight letters from the Judiciary Committee. The 10-7 vote on the Federal Judicial Salary Restoration Act of 2007 came about a month after the House Judiciary Committee passed its own version of the bill. They are identical but for the new gift restrictions and disclosure rules, which appear only in the Senate version. After the raise, federal district judges would earn $218,000 annually; appeals judges, $231,000; Supreme Court associate justices, $267,900; and the chief justice, $279,900. Congress has approved intermittent cost-of-living wage increases for federal judges, but no significant pay raises since 1991. Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., like William Rehnquist before him, has urged lawmakers to hoist judicial salaries, calling Congress’ failure to do so a “constitutional crisis” in his 2006 annual report. In his latest report, Roberts said that federal trial judges are “earning about the same as (and in some cases less than) first-year lawyers at firms in major cities, where many of the judges are located.” (Many firms have raised first-year associate salaries to $160,000 a year. And D.C.’s Williams & Connolly has even bumped first-years to $180,000.) The bills under consideration represent the best hope so far for federal judges and longtime supporters of the pay increase — including the American Bar Association and the Federal Bar Association — but their fate appears to turn on the reimbursement caps introduced in an amendment by Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.). For trips not sponsored by the government, bar associations, or judicial associations, reimbursements would be capped at $2,000. In a year, a judge could receive no more than $20,000 in reimbursements. “Even this generous cap should help cut down on unusually lavish trips that seem a little bit more like junkets,” Feingold said, referring to reports of judges attending educational seminars sponsored by special-interest groups and corporations. The amendment’s restrictions extend to colleges and universities, public or private, some of which pay handsomely for federal judges to speak or teach short courses. In a letter to the committee last week, the Judicial Conference’s secretary, James Duff, wrote that the amendment would “severely and unnecessarily restrict judges from traveling to law schools for lectures” and “drastically curtail appearances and speaking engagements at important conferences hosted by private institutions.” At the meeting, Feingold said, “These new restrictions are quite reasonable, particularly in light of the significant pay increase” included in the bill. The amendment passed 10-9, along party lines. Sens. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) pushed through an amendment that bars judges from accepting honorary memberships valued at more than $50 and obliges them to list their travel expenditures and reimbursements for each trip, no matter who pays for it. Neither bill has been scheduled for a floor vote.
Joe Palazzolo can be contacted at [email protected].

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